In this age of partisan and ideological polarization, something unusual happened in May: A writer from the right delivered an encomium to a writer from the left. The Washington Examiner’s Timothy Carney—a relentless libertarian who has never seen a government program he did not view as a squalid arrangement between statist liberals and corporate welfare seekers—paid tribute to Gabriel Kolko, a historian identified with the New Left of the 1960s who had passed away earlier that month.
Carney wrote that Americans typically believe a classic “fable” that courageous “trust busters” like Teddy Roosevelt used “the big stick of federal power to battle the greedy corporations.” Kolko’s work, especially his most significant book, The Triumph of Conservatism (1963), though little known today to anybody but specialists in early twentieth-century history, “dismantled this myth.” Carney quoted Kolko’s core argument: “The dominant fact of American political life” in the Progressive Era “was that big business led the struggle for the federal regulation of the economy.” And to both Carney and Kolko, this is pretty much everything you need to know.
It’s hard to call a historian “forgotten” in a country in which the phrase “that’s ancient history!” is about the most withering description of irrelevance imaginable. But Kolko is, at least, semi-forgotten. While a nontenured faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania during the Vietnam War, Kolko, at great risk to his academic career, exposed to the media and led protests against a university research program in chemical and biological weaponry funded by the Defense Department. Penn froze his salary and forced him to leave. Perhaps if Kolko had remained at an Ivy League research institution, he would have been better known at the time of his death. Instead, he ultimately spent most of his career teaching at York University in Toronto, writing several highly critical works about U.S. foreign policy before living his final years in Amsterdam.
When it was published, The Triumph of Conservatism completely undermined the dominant narratives about the Progressive Era: that a countervailing federal government, determined to limit the power of big business, had done just that; or that middle-class professionals and technocrats had engineered a rational mixture of markets and regulatory monitoring to moderate both business concentration on the right and labor and agrarian agitation on the left.
Kolko was one of several important scholars who came to prominence in the 1960s and, in the words of Peter Novick, the great interpreter and chronicler of the American historical profession, became “homogenized” as “New Left historians.” The phrase captures in its large net scholars who, despite a shared adversarial stance against the conventions of the profession, vehemently disagreed with one another about historical interpretation, the political prospects of the larger New Left, and the relationship between scholarship and political activism.
Still, when a prominent libertarian writer extols a half-century-old work that is contemptuous of the reform of modern American capitalism, written by a leftist scholar who spent most of his career teaching in Canada, attention must be paid. And not just to that scholar, but also to the current of thought that nurtured his career. New Left historiography was at once a movement to transform—and lead—the historical profession, a set of methods and topics to alter historical scholarship, and an effort to create an intellectual infrastructure that would be linked to an ascendant political movement and that would educate that movement about the successes and failures of its radical antecedents. Who were these historians who grew to intellectual maturity with the New Left and saw themselves as both scholars and activists? What did they accomplish intellectually? Can liberals and leftists take anything from their work today in the way the admiring libertarian, Timothy Carney, finds support for his arguments in the scholarship of Gabriel Kolko?
New Left historiography focused, not always congruently, on the machinations of the powerful and the resistance of the powerless. The historical scholarship paralleled contemporary developments: The post-New Deal state of the 1950s seemed feckless and enervated to these young historians (and then, during the ’60s, criminal), and the civil rights and anti-war movements in which many of them participated were great upsurges of mass protest that encouraged scholars to seek historical precedents.
New Left-affiliated historians emphasized three large themes of historical interpretation. The first was corporate liberalism (or what Kolko called “political capitalism”), the purported collusion between political and business elites—with a cameo role for labor unions—to stabilize the economy and suppress a radical leftist alternative. Secondly, they embraced history “from the bottom up”: the depiction of a culturally semiautonomous resistance against mercantile and professional elites among the poor, non-property-owning class in colonial and early America; against industrial capitalism among the white working class in the nineteenth century; and against the system of Southern chattel slavery among the slaves. Finally, they voiced a sharp criticism (undertaken by Kolko, among others) of the self-serving rationale since the late nineteenth century for the use of U.S. power abroad—what William Appleman Williams referred to in his 1959 classic, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, as America’s conception of itself as embodying a “unique combination of economic power, intellectual and practical genius, and moral rigor” that allowed it “to check the enemies of peace and progress—and build a better world—without erecting an empire in the process.” Williams was, of course, ahead of his time: Several years later, the focus on the historical roots of American interventionism synergized with the growing movement against the war in Vietnam.
In addition, feminist and African-American history overlapped somewhat with New Left history—especially in the latter case, via the work of Eugene Genovese, Herbert Gutman, Vincent Harding, and Harold Cruse—but those disciplines followed separate trajectories in conjunction with the feminist, civil rights, and black nationalist movements.
As a movement of paradigmatic thought, New Left history had a primary locus of intellectual fermentation: the history department at the University of Wisconsin. Madison was the spawning ground for many (but far from all) New Left historians, including Gutman, Martin J. Sklar, Ronald Radosh (then another expositor of corporate liberalism, but later a convert to conservatism), and Paul Buhle. Madison had a great tradition of producing progressive politicians like Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette. In addition, a long list of iconoclastic academics such as Frederick Jackson Turner and the pioneering labor economists John R. Commons and Richard T. Ely had taught at the university. As it happened, it became a kind of upper Midwest oasis for the next leftist generation, many of whom were Jewish and/or Red Diaper babies from New York or Chicago. (Kolko, too, passed through Madison, receiving his master’s from Wisconsin in 1955 before earning his doctorate from Harvard.)
Wisconsin’s Appleman Williams, the leading revisionist historical critic of American foreign policy, inspired and taught many of the radicalized young historians. Graduate students at Wisconsin founded Studies on the Left, the short-lived (1959-67) but most significant historical journal of the New Left. As Buhle suggests in the introduction to his fascinating anthology of reminiscences from faculty and students at Wisconsin, History and the New Left: Madison, Wisconsin, 1950-1970 (1990), two roughly contemporary frames of historical analysis originated, competed, and complemented each other in Madison. These were a top-down focus on the “manipulation of the masses by the American elite” as a “smooth” process, which, especially in Williams’s work on foreign policy, made intuitive sense (except when war triggered public opposition, elites controlled foreign policy and made it on their own behalf); and a bottom-up depiction of the social dynamics and cultural and political agency of workers, slaves, and (later) women.
Gutman was already working within the latter framework in the late 1950s, but his work and that of countless other young American leftist historians was given an enormous lift by the publication of the paperback version of E.P. Thompson’s monumental The Making of the English Working Class (1966). As Thompson eloquently argued in perhaps the most quoted introduction from a work of history in English of the past 50 years, he did not “see class as a ‘structure,’ nor even as a ‘category,’ but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships…. The relationship must always be embodied in real people and in a real context.” Class as a lived reality constructed by workers through collective actions rather than as a static category imposed upon them by intellectuals became the guiding tenet of American left social history for a generation and more.
To this was added the mantra of “thick description” taken from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz: the close analysis of culturally embedded group behaviors. The quotidian habits of social solidarity, which Gutman described with passionate brilliance in small nineteenth-century Midwestern and Eastern towns and slave communities alike, evoked a logic of tough, even fierce agency, without quite obscuring the grimmer truth that the elites remained in control of the political economy.
As Daniel Rodgers writes in his 2011 book Age of Fracture, culture was for Thompson and Gutman a “resource of the oppressed.” But it was not, frequently, a winning resource. Thompson’s justly famous plea in his introduction that he wished to “rescue the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver…from the enormous condescension of posterity” readily concedes that these workers might have been, as he continued, “casualties of history.” To quote a hesitant but perceptive undergraduate student of mine from long ago, as I fervently related Gutman’s argument that black families under slavery created their own wedding ceremonies and maintained separate surnames from those given them by their slave masters: “But…they were still slaves, right?” This exchange dampened my enthusiasm for teaching Gutman for a very long time.
A Critique of Liberalism
Rereading The Triumph of Conservatism and other works by Kolko after 35 years is to consider an almost mirror-opposite set of interpretative problems to those posed by Gutman and Thompson’s work. I opened the book with a vague memory that it was what it claimed to be: a powerful revisionist reading of the Progressive Era. The dutiful underlining and margin notes remain in my battered text, but a more skeptical eye has replaced my youthful credulity. The book is not nearly as compelling as I remember it.
It is arid and mono-causal, indeed almost monomaniacal. It marches through one rote example after another designed to demonstrate the author’s thesis without the slightest ambiguities or qualifications. Kolko tells story after story that reveals his overarching thesis that big business and capital joined with Theodore Roosevelt and other key politicians to regulate the economy to their advantage and to the disadvantage of potential competitors. For Kolko, even the Socialist Party, an influential political force at the time, shares the same views as the titans of business. Via selective quotations, Kolko subsumes the party of the great anti-capitalist Eugene Debs into the vast machinery of a centralized oligarchic capitalism.
Like Foucault, Kolko constructs a closed system of power: Resistance is not only futile, but merely a muffled shout somewhere outside the locked-door meetings in which politicians, bankers, and corporate leaders consciously worked to co-opt any and all challenges. There is barely a hint in the book—a paragraph on page 285, to be exact—that there were enormous social tensions roiling the country during the period under discussion. Labor was organizing and striking and frequently meeting violent resistance from companies and the state; farmers were unhappy; there were countless variations of aggressive and influential middle-class reformers dealing with issues ranging from immigration to family socialization to restrictions on alcohol; and the Socialist Party was growing, from the tenements of New York to the flatlands of Oklahoma. Kolko, himself writing before the apex of the New Left’s own activism, notes all of this, but doesn’t really see it; as Gutman shrewdly observed in a 1982 interview, the interpretive schema of corporate liberalism “is a expression of the political pessimism of the 1950s and early 1960s, which is simply being projected backward.”
Despite their apparent mastery of the political process he describes, the big corporations and banks, in Kolko’s own words, fail frequently. Somehow, the major insurance companies were unable to attain their goal of federalizing insurance regulation—to this day, each individual state regulates (rather laxly, say reformers) multibillion-dollar insurance companies. A bill to regulate food and drugs that industry opposed was passed in 1906. Similarly, the “Aldrich Plan,” developed to create a national system of reserve banks, named after as powerful an elite as one could imagine (Nelson Aldrich was the leader of the Senate Republicans, and his daughter married John D. Rockefeller Jr.), and supported by many of the nation’s most powerful bankers, could not even come to a vote in Congress.
And the book contains strange historical misreadings. In a particularly peculiar yet revealing example, Kolko downplays J.P. Morgan’s role in organizing his fellow plutocrats to limit the great financial Panic of 1907. Morgan was at the time America’s most prominent and powerful banker. His actions during the panic are so well documented by historians and biographers that Kolko’s contention that he “sat by and watched inexorable fate move in” is bizarre. But, as always, Kolko wants to drive home his larger thesis: in this case, that the New York banking interests were unable to rationalize their own sector in the face of industrial combines financing their own expansion via stock offerings. So Morgan, rather than being a whirlwind of self-interested activism—creating lending consortiums, reaching out to fellow titans like John D. Rockefeller and steel magnate Henry Frick for logistical and financial support, and deciding whether key banks would live or die—becomes, in Kolko’s unique telling, a passive stooge of the Treasury Department.
Kolko is also (like his present-day admirer Carney) obsessed with the motives of powerful actors at the expense of policy results. Because the major meatpackers wanted to “enforce and extend” the inspection laws in order to impose compliance costs upon their smaller competitors, Kolko dismisses meat inspection as a scam by big business. But even if the large meatpackers got something they wanted (and even if the law could have been much improved), maybe it’s still a good idea for a government that doesn’t want its citizens to be poisoned by rancid meat to, you know, inspect the meat. This was the goal of progressive reformers, and it also happened to benefit many more people than just the behemoth of Big Meat. Conservation, too, in Kolko’s telling, is just a sop to the lumber industry. And indeed, the industry played a major role in creating conservation policy, because its long-term fortunes were being adversely affected by “indiscriminate cutting”—yet so were those of the general public, which relies upon rational and prudent management of natural resources.
Another telling example, this from Kolko’s Main Currents in Modern American History (1976), is his curt dismissal of child labor laws. Again, the idea—in part true—is that Northern textile companies wanted to impose the costs of hiring adults on their Southern competitors. As Kolko sees it, their support for child labor laws was “purely and simply to strike a blow” against their competitors. But this ignores the longstanding movement against child labor—Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and Lillian Wald had formed the National Child Labor Committee in 1904—that was a primary reason that a bill, however limited, was ultimately passed (if then struck down by a conservative Supreme Court two years later).
The bald instrumentalism of Kolko’s analysis marks every page of Triumph. Martin J. Sklar, as a graduate student at Wisconsin, invented the term “corporate liberalism” and had a sophisticated analysis that carefully distinguished different variants. (Sklar, who died a few weeks before Kolko, was a self-destructive but much more creative historian than Kolko, and was recently the subject of two long, informative profiles in The New Republic and The Nation by friends and former colleagues John Judis and James Livingston, respectively.) For Kolko, who preferred the term “political capitalism,” large corporations and finance capital sought to protect themselves from competition and to use weaker federal regulation as a shield from potentially more meddlesome state regulations. They also rolled over small-business competitors.
Moreover, according to James Weinstein, another analyst of corporate liberalism and an important editor of Studies on the Left, the unions were also in on the deal, as a kind of junior partner to the federal government, big business, and banking. But in fact, as Sklar later pointed out, labor was too weak in the early twentieth century to be much of a partner to capital and the state. Rather, suggests Sklar, big business and small business together, over a couple of decades, reached an accommodation with unions to integrate widespread collective bargaining into the economy—a deal that bore fruit only beginning in the late 1930s and early 1940s, with the wartime production/no strike agreement reached by the Roosevelt Administration, business, and labor during the Second World War.
Leftists like Kolko, Weinstein, and Sklar emerged at exactly the moment when a huge cohort of postwar college students was chafing at the quiescence of the Eisenhower compromise with the New Deal order. The Triumph of Conservatism is a great example of a scholar, his subject, and his times harmonically converging. Kolko expressed the contempt the New Left historians felt toward both their professional predecessors—the “consensus” historians, with their too-easy assumption of American virtue (as seen even in their book titles: The Genius of American Politics; People of Plenty)—and the entire rotting edifice of the bureaucratic liberal state and its massive twin failures: its acquiescence to Southern white supremacy, and, a few years later, its hubris in undertaking the brutal, imperialist fiasco of Vietnam. In the early and mid-1960s, the New Left, holding aloft the Port Huron Statement, its signature rejection of every major American institution, concluded that the liberal state had shamed America, and Kolko and Weinstein were there to explain that liberalism was never what it was cracked up to be. As Weinstein wrote in his 1967 essay in Studies on the Left, “Notes on the Need for a Socialist Party,” it was a “myth” that “liberalism is a movement against the power of business…. Liberalism is not a neutral system of political thought, but an ideology that sustains and strengthens the existing power structure.”
Infiltrating the Establishment
During the late 1960s, every major American institution seemed up for grabs, subject to the withering criticism of Black Power and anti-war student activists and their allies among junior faculty. New Left historians not only challenged the reigning methods and interpretations within American historical scholarship; they attempted a takeover of the profession itself.
In 1969, at the height of opposition to the Vietnam War, a group of New Left historians, mostly junior scholars, attempted to capture the profession’s major organization, the American Historical Association (AHA). The two-pronged effort consisted of proposing a resolution condemning U.S. involvement in the war and electing as the AHA’s new president Staughton Lynd, the son of the eminent sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, authors of the emblematic study of middle America, Middletown (actually Muncie, Indiana). Lynd was an activist, an intellectual historian of colonial and early America, and a teacher who sought to bring his activism and his revisionist scholarship to the classroom. In comparison with Kolko’s bleak outlook in the early 1960s, Lynd’s work was tied optimistically to what he believed were the increasing revolutionary possibilities of the New Left. For example, in his 1968 work The Intellectual Origins of American Radicalism, Lynd attempted a tortured comparison between Marx and the Founding Fathers as cautious elites distrustful of radical movements from below, concluding that the abolitionists could teach all of these trimmers a lesson because “one should not invoke the ultimate act of revolution without willingness to see new institutions perpetually improvised from below; the withering away of the state must begin in the process of changing the state; freedom must mean freedom now.”
After doing his doctoral work at Columbia, Lynd had taught at all-black Spelman College in Atlanta during the civil rights movement and went on to help create the Mississippi Freedom Schools, an extraordinary effort at alternative education for black Mississippi children during what became known later as the “Freedom Summer” of 1964. In 1965, now with a position at Yale, he went to Hanoi with Tom Hayden, the young author of the Port Huron Statement, and Herbert Aptheker, a Communist Party member and Marxist historian of slavery. While there, Lynd (accurately) accused the U.S. government of lying about its participation in the war. Yale’s president, Kingman Brewster (later something of a hero to the left for defending the rights of the Black Panther Party), “used language from the law of treason” to describe Lynd’s activities in Hanoi, according to Lynd’s biographer, Carl Mirra. Yale fired Lynd in 1968, and he was unable to get a job anywhere else for political reasons. Later, he was to become a rank-and-file labor lawyer. But in 1969, then a scholar without an institution, he remained one of the most compelling historians of the New Left generation.
While Lynd attempted a procedural challenge to the AHA, his colleague Jesse Lemisch made a powerful intellectual assault on the historical establishment. Like Lynd, Lemisch had also been let go from an elite academic post, in his case at the University of Chicago. Also a historian of early American history, he had popularized the phrase “history from the bottom up” as a way to “make the inarticulate speak.”
Lemisch presented an extraordinary paper at the 1969 AHA convention entitled “Present-Mindedness Revisited” (later reprinted as “On Active Service in War and Peace”). The paper had already been rejected by the two major journals in the field—and rejected with genuine shock that its author could possibly have imagined it might be published. As an anonymous peer reviewer wrote to the editor of the Journal of American History, “I don’t know how you can tell [Lemisch] that he certainly can’t do this, and that he simply cannot do it in the pages of the Journal.” Lemisch’s paper is highly polemical, but it is also a careful reconstruction of the political biases of the consensus historians, accusing them of reflexively expressing the very same “present-mindedness” that Irwin Unger, a mainstream historian, had angrily accused the New Leftists of in an infamous paper two years earlier. Lemisch flips Unger’s attack on the New Leftists back onto the leading figures of the profession. He criticized prominent historians like Daniel Boorstin, who blithely admitted to the House Committee on Un-American Activities that some of his scholarship was, essentially, hagiography in the service of extolling the “unique virtues of American democracy,” and Stanley Elkins, the scholar of slavery who chastised the abolitionists for lacking the “balance” to oppose slavery while supporting social stability. Ultimately, Lemisch’s point was to assert that he and his young colleagues were trying to be better historians than their mentors, “trying to come a little closer to finding out how things actually were.”
For sheer chutzpah, Lemisch’s essay is remarkable in a way that is impossible to imagine in today’s more placid university environment (“You cannot lecture us on civility while you legitimize barbarity”). Just as some of the young New Left historians like Lynd feared, professionalization—the fear of losing a job in academia or the desire to enjoy the perks that came with holding one—would make such an attack on the most powerful scholars in the field by an aspiring junior faculty member unthinkable today. (Lemisch did survive to have a long academic career at SUNY Buffalo, and later at John Jay College.)
The establishment did not sit still in the face of these attacks. The anti-war resolution and Lynd’s presidential candidacy triggered a counter-movement from the AHA mainstream. It was led by perhaps the country’s most distinguished historian, Richard Hofstadter, abetted by various other liberals, a few more conservative eminences like the aforementioned Boorstin, and, in a fascinating twist, Eugene Genovese, the prominent Marxist historian and subsequent author of what remains the most influential history of American slavery in the past 40 years, Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974). Genovese had himself often been linked to the New Left historical cohort; he was a former editor of Studies on the Left after the journal moved to New York in 1962. Hofstadter invested his behind-the-scenes reputational capital, while Genovese provided the public firepower.
Hofstadter, who would die from leukemia at age 54 the following year, was profoundly worried that the profession, like his beloved Columbia University after the campus uprising of 1968, would become hysterically politicized—though he himself, at age 28, had briefly participated in a failed attempt in 1944 to oppose the elevation to the AHA’s presidency of a historian (and former ambassador to Spain) who’d been accused of supporting Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The New Left historians’ plan (a classic one for any small group of committed adherents seeking to take over an organization) was to surprise and overwhelm with numbers the business meeting of the AHA (typically a low-attendance snoozer), pass the anti-war resolution, and elect Lynd over R.R. Palmer, the establishment choice and eminent historian of the era of the French Revolution.
As Peter Novick mordantly observes, the radicals, in an almost parodic example of insurgent naiveté, deliberately left their key strategy memo in the reserved stacks at the State Historical Society in Wisconsin so it could be shared with prospective comrades. But instead, the non-radical faction of Wisconsin’s history department sent the memo along to the offices of the AHA. Hofstadter, as his biographer, David Brown, writes, sent a group letter to every member of the AHA, urging them to attend the business meeting and, in Brown’s words, “put down the young Turks…looking to politicize the association.” As Brown tells it, attendance swelled from 116 the previous year to more than 1,400. The anti-war resolution was defeated and Lynd received just 28 percent of the vote. The AHA, in a procedural hedge against future left-wing rebellion, weakened the power of the business meeting going forward.
Far more flamboyantly, Genovese opposed the New Left faction with a characteristically subtle argument that he expressed in a characteristically unsubtle way. Unlike Hofstadter, Genovese did not want, precisely, for universities to be apolitical. As Novick notes, he worried that the effort of Lynd and other New Leftists to make scholarship “immediately relevant” would undermine the university as a safe haven for a long-term Gramscian “war of position” undertaken by strategically farsighted leftist intellectuals like, well, himself. For similar reasons, Genovese, who had famously welcomed a Viet Cong victory just four years earlier, fought against an institutional resolution opposing the war. Lynd’s gambit had enraged Genovese and revealed his own authoritarian temperament. Genovese (and then-fellow leftist Christopher Lasch) thought Lynd’s scholarship was garbage: a delusional and ahistorical fantasy, polemically imposing on the past Lynd’s romantic hopes for a contemporary social revolution, full of presentist formulations like the one about Marx and the Founders.
In this academic chapter in the history of intra-left disputes, Lynd and his rebellious colleagues played the role of the abolitionists demanding freedom now, and Genovese, in turn, displayed the rage against Lynd and his attempted takeover of the AHA that Lenin and Trotsky had for the rebellious Kronstadt sailors in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Labeling Lynd and his supporters “totalitarians” during the AHA’s business meeting, Genovese—“screaming,” as Mirra describes it—urged his colleagues to “put these so-called radicals down, put them down hard, and put them down once and for all.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral of New Left historiography: Soon enough, leftist and feminist historians took over the field, particularly in American history. In 1978, Genovese was elected president of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the historians’ organization that focuses exclusively on the study of the United States. In 1980, even William Appleman Williams, the great Wisconsin mentor to New Leftist historians whom conservative historians frequently disparaged, assumed the same office. Linda Gordon, whose feminist activism in the 1970s integrated with her scholarship, is one of less than a handful of historians who have been twice awarded what is probably the profession’s highest honor, the Bancroft Prize. Another two-time Bancroft Prize winner who came along about a decade behind Kolko is Eric Foner—arguably not only the leading leftist historian today and the leading historian of the Civil War/Reconstruction era, but perhaps the most eminent contemporary American historian, period. In fact, the next two generations of great American historians, following the cohort of Kolko and Lynd, have been mostly identified as liberal-left and/or feminist.
Progressive History in a Conservative Age
The writing of history has its own history. Today’s historians no longer chastise the hegemonic liberalism of the post-New Deal order in the way young historians like Kolko, Weinstein, and Sklar did 50 years ago. Since 1980, liberal and leftist historians have written in an era of conservative ascendancy, while within the discipline itself, a kind of social democratic left-feminism dominates the profession’s leading organizations: Foner has served as president of both the AHA and the OAH, and a profession that, for decades, elected only men to run its top organizations now regularly elects women.
Today, historians of the left are more interested in the study of the rise of modern American conservatism, especially its mobilization at the state and local level. As Timothy Carney’s respect for Kolko’s work indicates, corporate liberalism may be an attractive paradigm for conservatives and libertarians. Many of them wish not only to limit corporate influence on the state but also to limit the federal government’s power to provide basic social insurance and to regulate the environment, occupational safety, and consumer products. Libertarians just wish to leave private economic power to its own devices (but without statist favoritism). Kolko wanted to destroy “political capitalism,” although he did not think a leftist alternative was up to the task. Libertarians, by contrast, want to boost capitalism and merely destroy the political-statist link to it. (Throughout his career, Kolko, unlike erstwhile comrades like Genovese, Sklar, and Radosh, remained a committed leftist and believed that libertarians misused his work for their own ideological purposes.)
There is a variation of the libertarian critique of state-capital collusion—which echoes the critiques made by Kolko and Weinstein—that is expressed among leftists critical of the Obama Administration. Critics of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), for example, made much of the fact that the Obama Administration had cut deals with the insurance and pharmaceutical industries that would provide those sectors with billions of dollars from newly insured patients. And it was true. Somehow lost in this outbreak of the obvious was the fact that while an integrated single payer or nonprofit health insurance as most advanced countries have was far preferable, this second-best choice benefited not only the companies, but also millions of poor and working-class Americans. They would now have health insurance that might spare them great medical and economic anxieties that they would otherwise never have—just as most of the critics, left and right, already had for themselves, and, if under 65, also obtained from private insurers. So, in an oddly symbiotic way, politics derived from The Triumph of Conservatism continue to influence debates a century after the period it examined and a half-century after its publication.
Yet the way a historian of the left might frame a scholarly inquiry today is often different from the way Kolko and his colleagues looked at the world during the 1960s. The reforms of the Progressive Era and the New Deal, which seemed so inadequate to Kolko and others when compared to a robust socialist challenge to capitalism, appear more impressive when compared instead to either the revanchist hysteria of the modern conservative movement or, for example, the actually existing authoritarian alternatives from both right and left during the New Deal. Plutocrats who have compared contemporary America to Nazi Germany are not interested in cleverly co-opting barely breathing labor unions and the liberal left with modest reforms. They want to crush these forces. The incremental improvement of the ACA is, to them, a giant signpost on the highway to a collectivist state.
Thus, a statist liberalism with all of its compromises might be viewed with more sympathy by today’s generation of leftist historians as the best bulwark against the concentrated wealth and power of conservative billionaires, especially given the power of each state under federalism to lower the standard for human decency below the national norm. (Recall that Kolko had argued the opposite: that the federal government was undercutting progressive state governments.) The most interesting recent scholarship about the Progressive Era—from, among others, Daniel Rodgers, Michael McGerr, and Elizabeth Sanders—depicts not the hermetically sealed elitist deal-making that Kolko describes, but an energized, diffuse reform movement, spanning large segments of the working class, farmers, journalists, academics, other professionals, and both major parties.
New Left historians, buoyed by the movements of their own time, judged American capitalism compared to a radical or socialist alternative that, in their telling, might have been realized. Compare an exemplary essay of New Left historiography by Stanford’s Barton Bernstein published in 1967 about the New Deal with recent liberal historical works on the subject by Eric Rauchway and Ira Katznelson. Bernstein’s essay, “The New Deal: The Conservative Achievements of Liberal Reform,” is all but contemptuous of Roosevelt and the liberal New Dealers: He chronologically extends Kolko’s theory of statist-big business collusion into the 1930s, writing that “there was no significant redistribution of power in American society.” Unlike Kolko, Bernstein believes that socialism was a real option: “Operating within very safe channels, Roosevelt not only avoided Marxism and the socialization of property, but he also stopped far short of other possibilities—communal direction of production or the organized distribution of surplus.” It is true that FDR had certain discrete choices he decided against—for instance, nationalizing the failing banking system when he came to office in March 1933. Yet when Upton Sinclair (the very same guy who precipitated the reform of meatpacking nearly 30 years earlier) ran in 1934 as the Democratic nominee for governor of California on a genuinely radical program of state seizure of unused factories and farmlands on behalf of the unemployed, he was badly defeated—yes, in part because every business interest in the state, from agriculture to Hollywood, joined forces to beat him while FDR sat on his hands. But such fanatical conservative opposition was to be expected. The point is that the American left of the 1930s—the left that was significantly farther left than FDR or even the CIO—was not nearly popular and powerful enough to overcome this.
A different emphasis—born in a different time, one of (mostly) quiescence on the left, trench warfare for limited reforms by liberals, and ethno-nationalist rage on the right—yields a more measured historical analysis. Rauchway, in a concise survey entitled The Great Depression and the New Deal (2008), and Katznelson, in his much-praised Fear Itself (2013), acknowledge all of the limitations of the New Deal’s reforms and FDR’s own frequent conservative instincts, while underscoring that the Southern segregationist bloc within the Democratic Party tied Roosevelt’s hands (what Katznelson and co-author Sean Farhang have famously called the “Southern imposition”). In fact, the central argument of Katznelson’s book is that the limited but profound New Deal reforms—Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, and the creation of a welfare capitalism that was also racist—were possible only because the segregationist Southern Democratic members of Congress permitted them. Bernstein insists that FDR “capitulated to the forces of racism.” He did not, for example, risk endorsing an anti-lynching bill, a great moral failing even if the bill would have been defeated anyway. But it is more accurate to observe that FDR indeed battled the Southern segregationist bloc, and lost. Rauchway and Katznelson note (as Bernstein had failed to) that in 1938, Roosevelt targeted several key Southern senators for defeat in primaries; Rauchway quotes him as insisting that the South must become a “liberal democracy.” But FDR’s more liberal candidates lost all of those elections.
Rauchway and Katznelson situate the New Deal in relationship to the actual totalitarian and authoritarian responses to the Depression and political unrest in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. (And even other democracies—during the Second World War, the United States held an election, the UK did not.) By that relative—another word for “historical”—standard, Rauchway argues that “the openly experimental, obviously fallible, always compromised quality of the New Deal” looks rather good. And remember the effort to outlaw child labor during the Progressive Era? The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the last great legislative achievement of the New Deal, finally accomplished that. Moreover, the New Left historians, so focused on nineteenth-century working-class history, failed to explain how the militant industrial worker upsurges of the 1930s could have resulted from the defeat of the nineteenth-century movements. It took latter-day labor historians like Lizabeth Cohen in Making a New Deal (1990) to describe the congealing of a multi-ethnic and racial (albeit riven by racism) industrial working class brought together in part by the promise of America contained in the nascent popular culture of radio and movies.
Thus, in the same way that the New Left historians contested the interpretations of the consensus and Progressive historians before them, so have subsequent generations of American historians elaborated, synthesized, and revised the work of Kolko, Weinstein, Gutman, and others. This recent work is more sophisticated both from the top down and the bottom up. Today’s liberal-left historians have come much closer to achieving what the great British historian Eric Hobsbawm called “the history of society” rather than concentrating exclusively on the agency of the powerful, or on white working class and African-American resistance to the powerful. As Eric Foner wrote in the preface to his magisterial (the word is here, for once, used with its full weight) Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, he wished to “[transcend] the present compartmentalization of historical study into ‘social’ and ‘political’ components” and to “view the period as a whole, integrating the social, political, and economic aspects of Reconstruction into a coherent, analytical narrative.”
And, importantly, unlike the labor history of the New Left that mostly did not connect to that generation’s labor activists and rank and file, today’s academic history is broadly influential among non-academic liberal writers and scholars. Every writer I know interested in the “American dilemma” of slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism has read Reconstruction. Every feminist has read Linda Gordon’s history of birth control, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right (1976, then revised). African-American public intellectuals and political writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jamelle Bouie, and Melissa Harris-Perry (herself a political scientist teaching at Wake Forest) have drawn deeply upon the work of contemporary American historians and other academics. Coates has insisted that no informed political writer can afford not to rely on this work, and it has buttressed his own analysis of American history, the evolution of white supremacy, and the case for reparations to black Americans. The 24/7 social media also facilitates today’s scholarship. Even the most erudite academics can be seen chatting on Harris-Perry’s or Chris Hayes’ show, or tweeting (very) pithy versions of their scholarship.
My first draft of this essay included a too-long list of great works of American history from just the past 30 years. For better and for worse, this is not history tied to a simultaneous mass social justice movement the way New Left history was; rather, analytical detachment and precision are gained and spontaneity and polemical energy are lost. The newer historical scholarship grounds the intellectual “war of position” that Eugene Genovese believed leftists would need to carry out in American institutions and public culture over many decades. These more recent works are part of the standard knowledge base of the newest American intellectual left. The impediments of hierarchy are more clearly defined, conceptually and geographically, than in the work of the New Left historians.
All of these histories and many others—some by rough contemporaries of Kolko and Gutman like Foner, Gordon, and James McPherson, others by younger historians—have themselves a historical lineage in the relentless, impassioned, flawed, ambitious, top-down/bottom-up work of the New Left historians. I would, of course, recommend the works mentioned here and many others to conservatives too—and I have, to several of them. In fact, I have some more suggestions for Timothy Carney, who was gracious and perceptive in linking his own thinking to that of one of the founding New Left historians, Gabriel Kolko. I’m glad he took a lot from The Triumph of Conservatism. But, you know, it’s not that great of a book. Despite a world full of despair, sometimes history, and even the writing of history, gets better over time.