Gabriel Kolko’s Unfinished Revolution

Published on Zmagazine, by Eli Cook, Aug 24, 2014.

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.

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 … //

… Let us hope scholars other than libertarians pick up where Kolko left off, as he is no longer around to write the 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.

(full long text).

(Eli Cook is a postdoctoral fellow at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis).

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