Gabriel Kolko, RIP

The death of a radical historian


The leftist historian Gabriel Kolko has died 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 contain 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 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 Deal. And 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. His scholarship, meanwhile, had much to teach both the socialists and the capitalists whose ideas he dismissed. Requiescat in pace.

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  1. Now that is the letter of a straight up, delusional ivory tower prick.

    So-called libertarians. DRINK?!

    1. Do not hold “so-called libertarians” against him. An old socialist remembers a time when the Wobblies owned the word “libertarian”.

  2. Gabriel Kolko indeed has a lot to teach about the natural affiliation of big business and government that was born in the Progressive Era.

    Here’s my quoting his Railroads and Regulation:

    The crucial point is that the railroads, for the most part, consistently accepted the basic premises of federal regulation since only through the positive intervention of the national political structure could the destabilizing, costly effects of cutthroat competition, predatory speculators, and greedy shippers be overcome.

    And here’s my defense of his work as valuable for libertarians to appreciate:

    Kolko’s a good read because, like libertarians, he is far enough outside the plane of the liberal-conservative divide that he sees that they are essentially the same ? but he tells it from the other side.

    So where libertarians would say government has entirely too much power and that prevents the creative destruction necessary to increase wealth, Kolko would say that businesses have entirely too much power to get government to do their bidding and that squashes the alternatives to the businesses.

  3. “After Stalin, Mao, and Blair, socialism is today irreversibly dead both in practice and theory.”

    If only. Frankly, he doesn’t sound to me like he was very connected to reality.

    1. It’s an odd triumvirate he chose to embody that thought, as the first two were as manifestly socialist as one can get, while the third was actually a reformer who wanted to temper theoretical socialism with some degree of market dynamism.

      1. the third was actually a reformer who wanted to temper theoretical socialism with some degree of market dynamism

        …which in its own way was also evidence of the death of socialism. (Also, I’m sure Kolko despised Blair for his role in the Iraq War.)

  4. I had seen his name mentioned so often that I assumed he had already passed. “The Triumph of Conservatism” has been on my reading list for far too long. I think I’ll disrespect his memory by finally reading it this summer.

  5. Please, no book stuff. This is video game month.

  6. This may be a copyright violation, to pos the letter like this. Another reason libertarians should all be utterly opposed to copyright.

  7. Kolko’s revisionism corrected conventional (in 1965) Populist-fury explanations for the 1887 Interstate Commerce Act, and there is no real question that the Elkins Act of 1903, which punished rebating, and the Transportation Act of 1920, which tried to guarantee railroads a 6% rate of return, helped the rail industry function as a series of regional cartels.

    Regarding the 1906 Hepburn Act and 1910 Mann-Elkins Act, though, Kolko was wrong. As Albro Martin pointed out in 1971, his interpretation of the evidence was strained, to put it kindly–a classic case of fitting history to a preconceived theory. But some Chicago School economists found his theory congenial. Libertarians irritated at always being seated with conservatives could shock everyone at the dinner party by citing a New Left historian (Your publication of Kolko’s cold rebuff of libertarian love does a public service). Deregulation activists built political alliances using Kolko.

    Since then, the Kolko-Martin issue has been debated in more than thirty journal articles and several books. A survey demonstrates the truth of historian Maury Klein’s conclusion that Kolko’s thesis regarding the 1906-1917 period has been “pretty thoroughly demolished.” Those who followed Kolko over the cliff missed an opportunity to see that the acts of 1906 and 1910 were an excursion into confiscatory rate regulation that by 1920 was generally regarded as a mistake, but which was repeated again in the 1950s and ’60s.

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