When noted revisionist historian Gabriel Kolko died last year, leftist scholars published numerous eulogies of him. No surprise: Kolko had been a socialist. More surprising, it might seem, were the tributes from free-market commentators. Yet Kolko had been the object of libertarian encomia for nearly 50 years. It all began when Murray Rothbard heralded Kolko for proving that America's great industrialists had been crony capitalists; that Progressive politicians had been capitalist puppets; and that free markets, had they prevailed in nineteenth-century America, would have made anti-monopoly regulations unnecessary.
From a half-century perspective, however, Rothbard's unadulterated praise appears mistaken, even greatly so.
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. But these genuine contributions are vitiated by Kolko's Marxist misinterpretations of nineteenth-century America and by his distortions of historical evidence.
1. Kolko misunderstood the theory and practice of competition. Progressives had portrayed Gilded Age capitalists as Social Darwinists practicing tooth-and-nail competition to achieve "the survival of the fittest." Kolko easily showed that those capitalists often eschewed competition: "Although there was a formal commitment to varieties of laissez-faire economic theory in most of the academic world, big businessmen developed their own functional doctrine very much opposed to competition as either a desirable mechanism or as a goal."
What Kolko did not understand is that laissez-faire entails only the political right to compete. It implies neither that competition (firm-against-firm rivalry) is the preferred strategy of businessmen nor that bankrupting rivals is their preferred goal. Collaboration and market-sharing, acquisition and merger, even monopoly—as long as the latter is voluntary—are worthy elements of the free-market process.
2. Kolko also misconstrued the role that free-market theory plays in politics. If capitalists had believed in free-market capitalism, he implied, they would have espoused it uncompromisingly. But they did not. He wrote: "The House Committee on Commerce hearings of 1882 revealed disagreements among railroad men on particulars, but few indicated their opposition to legislation on any terms." For Kolko, this proved that railroad men did not believe in free markets.
Had Kolko looked at the beliefs of nineteenth century free-market advocates, he would have found that they were highly empirical and realistic. For example, William Graham Sumner's belief in laissez-faire was perhaps the purest in America. Yet Sumner wrote: "When we go over to statecraft, we go over to art—to the domain not of truth but of expediency, not of scientific laws but of maxims.... Laissez-faire comes in as a general warning, not as an absolute injunction."
Kolko's either/or assumption kept him from distinguishing between proposals that differed greatly in the degree of freedom they offered to businessmen. For example, when Kolko discussed businessmen's acceptance of proposals for a "commission" to oversee the railroads, he trivialized the differences between a "sunshine" commission, which merely exposed complaints as a newspaper might, and a Wisconsin-style commission, which had the power to set rates.
3. Kolko also did not grasp that, to businessmen, uniformity and clarity of regulation might be more important than the degree of regulation. Thus, after railroads became continental, their owners sought consistent national regulation at the price of greater regulation. Likewise, after the Sherman Antitrust Act created a legal standard that was hopelessly vague, businessmen petitioned Congress for clarifying legislation simply because they sought intelligibility.
On May 15, 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down two adverse but incoherent antitrust rulings: Standard Oil and American Tobacco. According to Robert Bork: "[Chief Justice] White gave us no general guide to what behavior was abnormal other than, perhaps, the suggestion that it involved an intent 'to drive others from the field and to exclude them from their right to trade.'... Whenever a competitor competes he intends to take business away from rivals, which involves excluding them." No wonder, then, that just eighteen days after those decisions, Judge Elbert H. Gary, chairman of U.S. Steel (which had already been subjected to six years of antitrust investigation and which would be targeted by the trust-busters four months later), spoke with exasperation to a House investigation of his company: "I would be glad if we knew exactly where we stand, if we could be freed from danger, trouble, and criticism by the public, and if we had some place where we could go, to a responsible government authority, and say to them, 'Here are our facts and figures, here is our property, here our costs of production; now you tell us what we have the right to do and what prices we have the right to charge.'"
Kolko thoroughly misinterpreted Gary's words, saying that he sought federal price controls to obviate "the existing price anarchy in steel." In fact, as Gary made clear, although U.S. Steel could not set prices in the market, it had achieved "a very great result in securing reasonable stability." What Gary wanted to avoid was not price "anarchy" but endless and incomprehensible trust-busting aimed at dominant firms. Congressman Martin Littleton (D-NY) suggested: "the Sherman antitrust law recently interpreted.... practically orders a continuance of the old warfare of competition." And Gary replied: "I am afraid it does.... We do not want to be dealing in uncertainty, groping around in darkness, not knowing what we have the right to do."
4. As a Marxist, Kolko believed that a political-economic elite controlled the Gilded Age. "There was a basic consensus among political and business leaders as to what was the public good," he wrote, "and no one had to be cajoled in a sinister manner." This view precluded Kolko from recognizing what regulatory historian Thomas McCraw called "the gun behind the door." Kolko could not credit the fact that businessmen's proposals to Congress were often concessionary because they feared the coercive power of politicians and were trying to appease them in hopes of winning a lesser degree of regulation.
For example, Charles Francis Adams Jr., president of the Union Pacific Railroad, began his 1885 testimony before a U.S. Senate Committee by staunchly recommending a sunshine commission for railroads, such as he had headed in Massachusetts. Given that everyone saw a need to respond to the growing public complaints against the railroads, the question was one of theoretical approach: rules and maybe even rates set down by commissions? laws enforced by the courts? In the view of Adams, "The true theory of legislative dealing with this question" was an approach close to laissez-faire, which would allow a commission, but one with only investigative powers. He went on to explain that "all the [Massachusetts] commissioners could do was to examine, report, and recommend, thus having recourse to public opinion." When senators made it clear that so powerless a commission was out of the question, Adams tried to save what he could by agreeing to some minor regulations (for example, a ban on free passes), but he concluded by recommending to the senators an "easy does it" commission with inchoate powers. "By building slowly, and as your lights grow, you will get along a great deal more rapidly than by trying to build the whole thing at once."
Adams had described such a fallback position—knowledgeable experts learning and tinkering—a year earlier in his correspondence with Congressman John D. Long (R-MA). Kolko quoted that letter from Adams to Long: "If you only get an efficient Board of Commissioners, they could work out of it whatever was necessary." Yet, on that basis, Kolko called Adams a "cynic," implying that—even before the ICC existed—Adams had worked out the theory of regulatory capture and its uses for crony capitalism. Kolko ignored both the strong recommendation for a pure "sunshine commission," with which Adams began his testimony, and the significance of his earlier explanation to Long that acceptance of a somewhat more powerful commission could head off "a demand for extreme legislation."
5. Lastly, Kolko did not comprehend the nature of a mixed economy. In 1973, Kolko wrote: "I have no common area of sympathy with the quaint irrelevancy called 'free market' economics. There has never been such a system in historical reality." This puzzled libertarians, for they too acknowledge that no economy has ever been laissez-faire. But how did that make free-market economics irrelevant? Surely, free-market ideas could be partially embodied in an economy.
Not for Kolko. In a mixed economy, he thought, the contours of private property and free exchange were never impure embodiments of free-market ideas but always pure embodiments of the interests of the propertied class. As he said: "The question is not the state's role in the economy but rather on whose behalf it will act, and even on the relatively infrequent occasions when it stays out of the economy, some interests gain thereby." Thus, the only significant principle in a mixed economy is, to paraphrase Lenin, "Who wins? Who loses?" and the only significant mechanisms for determining that are political.
But Kolko did not merely misinterpret political-economic theory because of his philosophical outlook. He also twisted facts.
1. One of Kolko's minor sins as an historian was to quote secondary sources when primary sources were less supportive. This might not be worth mentioning, except that it affects one of Kolko's most oft-repeated assertions about the origins of railroad regulation.
For Kolko, those elements of the ruling class that were both the largest and the most concerned with an issue won the conflicts between capitalists. Consequently, after gesturing toward theories that attributed railroad regulation to Grangers, New York merchants, or independent oil producers, Kolko wrote: "The only fruitful approach to the problem that has not yet been seriously explored is the role of the railroads."
Yet we know that the drive for federal railroad regulation began in 1876, when independent oil producers persuaded a Pennsylvania congressman to introduce a bill banning rebates and rate discrimination. Kolko's explanation? "The bill... was apparently written by the attorney for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad." His evidence for the railroad's involvement is a passage in Gerald Nash's "Origins of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887." But why cite a secondary source? Perhaps because Nash's primary source was an anonymous newspaper column, published four years after the 1876 bill in Chicago, not Pennsylvania, and rife with factual inaccuracies.
Specifically, the article by the Chicago Daily Tribune's anonymous Washington correspondent mentioned the supposed drafting of the 1876 bill by a P&R attorney only in order to explain why it was "not strange" that the House Commerce Committee testimony given in January 1880 by "Mr. Gowan, representative of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad" advocated "the general principles of the Reagan bill" on railroad regulation. But Gowen (not Gowan) was president of the Philadelphia & Reading, not just a "representative," and according to the Philadelphia Inquirer's story of the same day: "Mr. Gowen, of the Reading Railroad, followed [Charles Francis Adams], and gave the bill one of the severest poundings it has yet had." The Associated Press story from that day said: "Mr. Gowen doubted the power of Congress, under the Constitution, to interfere with the management of railways." Pounding a bill is not exactly an endorsement.
2. A more serious flaw in Kolko's scholarship is his presentation of quotations completely out of context. One such quotation—perhaps the one most repeated by Kolko's fans—concerns the steel industry. Kolko set up the quotation from Andrew Carnegie as follows:
So far as the price competition plaguing the steel industry was concerned, however, "it always comes back to me that Government control, and that alone, will properly solve the problem."
Carnegie appears to support Kolko's thesis that leaders of the early twentieth-century steel industry preferred government regulation to market-driven competition. Unnoted is the fact that Carnegie had sold his company to J.P. Morgan eight years earlier, but no matter. This is what Carnegie actually wrote:
It is not alone in steel that there is to-day [sic] a practical monopoly: tobacco, thread, sugar, oil, even if there be different manufacturers in all of these, have that 'sort of an understanding' which creates monopoly.... A monopoly could not be permitted to make its own price.... Some remedy must be found; I have thought over the subject and considered substitutes, but without success: it always comes back to me that government control, and that alone, will properly solve the problem. There is nothing alarming in this; capital is perfectly safe in the gas company, although it is under court control. So will all capital be, although under Government control.
In short, Carnegie's statement has nothing to do with "the price competition plaguing the steel industry." Quite the reverse. It expresses Carnegie's belief that monopolies or pools dominating steel and other industries might have the power to set monopoly prices. His solution was one that many were urging for so-called natural monopolies (such as the gas company): empowering "expert" government commissions to oversee prices. Whether such commissions are wise or unwise is not the point here. The point, rather, is that Carnegie was advocating government regulation to restrain monopoly, not to restrain competition.
3. Kolko even doctored quotations to change their meaning. Consider this opening to his four-paragraph quotation from railroad man Albert Fink, which suggests that Fink favored immediate legislative interference in his industry.
In early 1882, during House hearings on the Reagan Bill, Fink, while claiming he would prefer an investigative committee of Congress first, made specific suggestions to the Committee on Congress: "The first step... should be to legalize the management of the railroad property under this [pool] plan."
Fink ran the railroads' voluntary pooling arrangements, under which the lines agreed to divide business according to historical percentages and then modify those percentages according to changes achieved by "fair competition." Fink believed fervently that such pooling could address all public complaints against the railroads, and he hoped that Congress would someday make pool contracts enforceable in the courts (as they were not under common law).
Enforcement of pooling contracts was compatible with free markets, despite Kolko's belief to the contrary. But that is not what Fink was saying in Kolko's quotation, although Kolko made the quotation sound that way. Fink was saying that if all voluntary efforts to end the complaints against the railroads failed, and if it became necessary for the government to act, then government ought to act in assistance of the railroads' voluntary efforts to address popular complaints. And if government did, at that point, act to assist the railroads' voluntary efforts, then "[t]he first step to that end should be to legalize the management of the railroad property under this [pool] plan." (Emphasis added.) By means of an ellipsis, Kolko transformed the entire significance of four key paragraphs of quotation. He turned Fink's speculation about the "first step" in a pro-free market process that might, hypothetically, take place on some future day into an urgent plea for an immediate "first step" by Congress.
4. Kolko's habit of changing the meaning of quotations forced him to avoid quoting material that contradicted his deceptive citations. In the case just cited, Kolko distorted Fink's remark to mean that Congress should immediately legalize pooling contracts; Kolko, therefore, had to avoid quoting what Fink said on the next page of his testimony: "It is much better for government not to interfere at the present stage, and perhaps not at any time."
Murray Rothbard's estimate of Kolko's business-government historiography was too hasty, perhaps because its anti-Big Business conclusions were simple and congenial for a libertarian worldview. Subsequent classical-liberal praise of Gabriel Kolko as "a socialist but nonetheless an historian with a respect for facts" is also unjustified. All historians need to be extremely wary of quoting Kolko.
There is a more general lesson. Careful attention must be paid to context and motivation in the world of business-government interactions. In so doing, scholars must move past stereotypes of America's nineteenth-century industrialists: Matthew Josephson's "Robber Barons," Ayn Rand's "Persecuted Minority" and Gabriel Kolko's "Political Capitalists."
Murray Rothbard, "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty." Reprinted in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, edited by Murray Rothbard (Washington, D.C.: Libertarian Review Press, 1974, 1964), pp. 21-53.
See, generally, Robert L. Bradley Jr. and Roger Donway, "Reconsidering Gabriel Kolko: A Half-Century Perspective," Independent Review, Spring 2013, pp. 561-76.
Gabriel Kolko, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History: 1900-1916 (New York: The Free Press, 1963), p. 13.
Gabriel Kolko, Railroads and Regulation: 1877-1916 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 29.
William Graham Sumner, "Laissez-faire," 1886, excerpted in William Graham Sumner: An Essay of Commentary and Selections (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1963), p. 31
Robert H. Bork, The Antitrust Paradox: A Policy at War with Itself (New York: Basic Books, 1978), pp. 38-39.
Hearings before the Committee on Investigation of United States Steel Corporation, House of Representatives, 62nd Cong., 1st sess., Vol. 1, no. 3, p. 79.
Kolko, Triumph of Conservatism, p. 174
Hearings on U.S. Steel, p. 80
Hearings on U.S. Steel, p. 79.
Hearings on U.S. Steel, p. 79.
Kolko, Triumph of Conservatism, p. 282.
Thomas K. McCraw, Prophets of Regulation: Charles Francis Adams, Louis D. Brandeis, James Landis, Alfred E. Kahn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), p. 35.
Report of the Senate Select Committee on Interstate Commerce, 49th Cong., 1st sess. (1885), testimony of Charles Francis Adams Jr., vol. 2, p. 1202
Testimony of Charles Francis Adams Jr., p. 1218.
Kolko, Railroads and Regulation, p. 37.
Gabriel Kolko, After Socialism: Reconstructing Critical Social Thought (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 94
"In all politics, Lenin taught his followers, there is one central question. This he expressed in lapidary form: 'Kto kogo? — Who whom?' In Russian, no verb is needed; the first word is subject, the second object." Bertram David Wolfe, An Ideology in Power: Reflections on the Russian Revolution (New York: Stein and Day, 1969), p. 356.
Kolko, Railroads and Regulation, p. 21.
Kolko, Railroads and Regulation, p. 21.
Gerald D. Nash, "Origins of the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887," Pennsylvania History, Vol. 24 (July 1957), p. 184.
"Reagan's Bill," Chicago Daily Tribune, January 28, 1880.
"Washington," The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 28, 1880.
Kolko, Triumph of Conservatism, p. 173. Rothbard (1965) quoted this passage, and it was used as recently as April 2015 by conservative author Jonah Goldberg: "Andrew Carnegie, when bedeviled by competitors, called for 'government control' of the steel industry as a way to cement U.S. Steel's status—and profits." "The Abusive Businessman's Enablers," Jonah Goldberg, National Review, April 20, 2015.
Andrew Carnegie, "Control of Monopolies," New York Times, February 16, 1909.
Kolko, Railroads and Regulation, p. 27; brackets in the original.
D. T. Gilchrist, "Albert Fink and the Pooling System," Business History Review 34, no. 1 (Spring 1960), p. 31.
Albert Fink, "Argument of Mr. Albert Fink," in "Arguments and Statements before the Committee on Commerce in Relation to Certain Bills Referred to That Committee Proposing Congressional Regulation of Interstate Commerce." U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, 47th Cong. 1st sess., March 18, 1882, p. 189.
Albert Fink, "Argument of Mr. Albert Fink," p. 190.
Lawrence W. Reed, "Of Meat and Myth," The Freeman 44, no. 11 (November 1994), p. 601.
*Robert L. Bradley Jr. is CEO of the Institute for Energy Research (IER).
*Roger Donway is a research assistant at IER and freelance editor and writer.
Gabriel 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 postwar American affluence.
Be it the government-subsidized consumerism of fifties 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 populist 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 precisely 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 J. P. 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 Balkanized political system that did not fit the standardized needs of corporations aspiring to create a centralized national economy.
Corporate-minded businessmen, 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 twentieth century, corporate businessman’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.
After deeming the Progressive Era conservative, Kolko — along with his wife Joyce — turned his eye on to American foreign policy, the Cold War, and Vietnam. Here too, Kolko sought to challenge the conventional wisdom of the field.
Until Kolko and William Appleman Williams came along, the standard argument regarding the origins of the Cold War in America fixed nearly all of the blame on the Soviet Union. George Kennan’s popular theory of “containment” portrayed the United States as a rather passive player in global politics, as it sought only to protect itself and hold back Communist aggressors. These narratives tended to downplay economic or social causes of the Cold War in favor of diplomatic explanations and high politics.
Kolko’s rewriting of the Cold War reflected these criticisms. In The Politics of War (1968), he linked domestic and foreign policy by arguing that one of the main goals of American warfare was to suppress the Left at home and preserve corporate capitalist social relations. In The Limits of Power(1972), he contended that it was American capitalism’s unquenched need for overseas markets as an outlet for corporate surplus production that forced the United States to take the offensive following World War II.
In these and later writings on American foreign policy, Kolko once more contended that the liberal dichotomy between government and capital was a false one, and that one could only understand the Cold War by exploring the synergetic relationship between capitalists and the liberal state.
And once again, Kolko’s writings and his politics remained firmly enmeshed: He became one of the most outspoken critics of American war crimes, supported the North Vietnamese cause, and was actually in Vietnam when Saigon fell (or, as Kolko would have it, liberated). Kolko even left his position at the University of Pennsylvania after discovering that the school had participated in research on the infamous chemical weapon known as “Agent Orange.” He moved to Canada.
Postwar American liberalism was tolerant and supportive of many historical schools, even those often dominated by socialists. Thanks to its bottom-up emphasis on human agency and marginalized Americans, for example, the liberal mainstream had few qualms about the emerging field of labor history. And despite having its fair share of Marxist luminaries, the history of slavery was widely accepted into the liberal canon in these decades partly because such histories had a tendency to implicitly legitimize free labor capitalism (no matter how hard some on the Left tried to avoid such conclusions).
Celebrate the laborer and slave, or condemn the ruthless businessman and slaveholder, and you could still be a star of the historical profession in postwar America — even if you were a socialist. There was, however, one angle you decidedly could not take: the undermining of middle-class reform and the federal government by equating liberalism with capitalism. As a result, Kolko never managed to climb into the upper echelon of the profession. After leaving the University of Pennsylvania, Kolko spent the rest of his career in Canada, teaching at York University in Toronto.
Today, few graduate students, even those of American capitalism, have even heard of Gabriel Kolko. In the recent bibliographical essay in The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Kolko was not even mentioned. Such labels as “the Progressive Era” or “middle-class reform,” on the other hand, don’t seem to be going anywhere.
Sadly, in researching this piece, it became abundantly clear to me that the group of scholars most active in keeping the Kolko flame alive has been the libertarian right, which has taken Kolko’s analysis of government-designed corporate capitalism as an opportunity to celebrate the wonders of the free market. As early as 1976, Kolko himself recognized this development, lamenting the fact that “with the unimportant exception of a few conservatives who ignored everything which undermined their case, no one paid much attention to my economic exposition.”
Kolko’s reaction to this libertarian lovefest, meanwhile, reveals the unapologetic radical that he was. When a free market magazine sought to list Kolko amongst its supporters, he responded with a letter:
As I made clear often and candidly to many so-called libertarians, I have been a socialist and against capitalism all of my life, my works are attacks on that system, and I have no common air of sympathy with the quaint irrelevancy called “free market” economics. There has never been such a system in historical reality, and if it ever comes into being you can count on me to favor its abolition.
Kolko’s politics, however, were not the only reason he failed in his attempt to upend the discipline of American history. Glance at the cover of The Triumph of Conservatism, and you will find a picture of a giant capitalist in a top hat towering over everyday Americans. Take a closer look, and you will see that the businessman is in fact a giant puppeteer as he has managed to harness the American people with a fistful of rope.
For Gabriel Kolko, capitalists really did pull all the strings. While Kolko’s archival research was always impressive and convincing, such a simplistic approach to history lacked a nuanced and rigorous understanding of power, class and historical change.
While other revisionist historians of the era such as James Weinstein were coming to view businessmen, social reformers, and politicians as part of a single consolidating class (and culture) of corporate technocrats, Kolko’s analysis tended to focus on either presidents and top policy makers or specific interest groups such as Wall Street bankers or Midwestern industrialists. The emphasis was often on uncovering high profile “smoking guns,” not broad, complex and tacit shifts towards a new class-driven and bureaucratic synergy between corporation and state. Despite all his emphasis on economic forces, for Kolko historical change remained mostly personal — not structural and certainly not cultural.
And yet, while Kolko’s heretical revolution clearly remains unfinished, his vast influence on the field of American history cannot be denied. Along with William Appleman Williams, Martin Sklar, and James Weinstein, Kolko became one of the founding fathers of the “corporate liberal” school which stressed that the modern liberal state aided and abetted corporate capitalism far more than it inhibited it. Corporate liberalism has remained one of the most important interventions in American historiography in part because it succeeded in denaturalizing capitalist relations and challenging both neoclassical and liberal approaches to the study of market economics by stressing the crucial role that the state and its legal system played in the very making of modern capitalism.
While more nuanced than Kolko’s somewhat crude arguments, works such as Morton Horwitz’s Transformation of American Law and Alan Brinkley’s End of Reform are but two examples of great works of history which clearly owe a great debt to Gabriel Kolko. As Alan Brinkley argued in classic Kolkian style, while New Deal reforms may not have been hand-written by businessmen, they nevertheless were committed first and foremost to “providing a healthy environment in which the corporate world could flourish.”
These important books, as well as Sven Beckert’s The Monied Metropolis, Nancy Cohen’s The Reconstruction of American Liberalism, William Roy’s Socializing Capital, James Livingston’s Origins of the Federal Reserve,and many others have Gabriel Kolko’s intellectual fingerprints all over them. Even on the foreign policy front, Kolko’s voice — albeit indirectly — seems to be emerging once more. As Paul Kramer has recently argued in what may become a transformative article in the American Historical Review, it is high time that the study of American imperialism focus not only on racism and masculinity but corporate capitalism. I hope Kolko got to read this article before he died.
I have a hunch that both the war in Iraq and the US government’s blatant bailout of Wall Street in 2008 may lead to a Kolkian renaissance in the near future. In his wildest socialist dreams, Kolko could not have made up such outrageous and perfect examples to prove his argument that the main goal of the federal government, in both its domestic and foreign policy, is not to restrain corporate capitalism but to preserve and advance it.
Let us hope scholars other than libertarians do pick up where Kolko left off, as he is no longer around to write the meticulous and definitive case study on the shady dealings of Timothy Geithner, Hank Paulson, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld. This is a real tragedy, for I suspect that no one would have done it better.