Gabriel Kolko, RIP

"Pull the string! Pull the string!"The leftist historian Gabriel
Kolko has
at age 81. He wrote many books that drew interest from
libertarians, from
Railroads and Regulation
(1965), on the early history
of the Interstate Commerce Commission, to
The Limits of Power
(1972), on the early history of
the Cold War. But the Kolko book that libertarians love to
invoke the most is
The Triumph of Conservatism
(1963), his history of the
Progressive Era. Pushing back against liberals who celebrate the
first two decades of the twentieth century as a time when the
government finally started to tame big business, Kolko made a
strong case that big business had in fact played a major role in
designing and imposing the new regulations. In this way, he showed,
companies were able to eliminate competition that could not be
stopped by market means. “As new competition sprang up,” he wrote,
“and as economic power was diffused throughout an expanding nation,
it became apparent to many important businessmen that only the
federal government could rationalize the economy….[I]t was not
the existence of monopoly that caused the federal government to
intervene in the economy, but the lack of it.”

Since The Triumph of Conservatism was
published, we’ve seen half a century of scholarship on the
Progressive Era; Kolko’s book is by no means the last word on the
period. But it’s a fine entry point into that scholarship, a
disinfectant that clears away both liberal myths about benevolent
reformers and conservative myths about independent, market-loving
businessmen. And it was a watershed moment in the New Left’s
emerging critique of the corporate state, a critique that converged
with the arguments coming from free-market libertarians.

Kolko was initially puzzled by this convergence. In 1973, when
Reason was assembling a list of college professors whose
courses might be of interest to libertarian students, Kolko reacted
with this letter:

Over time this attitude softened, and Kolko came to speak favorably
of libertarian scholarship on such subjects as the New
. In his 2006 book
After Socialism
he firmly rejected the socialist
tradition, though he did not leave the left. “After Stalin, Mao,
and Blair, socialism is today irreversibly dead both in practice
and theory,” he wrote, then added that “capitalist theories are no
less erroneous and irrelevant.”

So that’s where the scholar stood at the end of his life. But
his scholarship, meanwhile, had much to teach both the socialists
and the capitalists whose ideas he dismissed. Requiescat in

from Hit & Run

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