The great revisionist historian Gabriel Kolko has died.
Historians have long recognized that the Progressive Era, 1900 to 1920, was a critical watershed in American political-economic and intellectual history. It was the gestation period of the modern welfare-warfare state.
So many crucial events and legislative enactments occurred in the period such as the birth of the Federal Reserve banking cartel, the Harrison Narcotics Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, the ascendancy of the Eugenics movement and “scientific racism,” the passage of the Sixteenth Amendment and the progressive income tax, the Seventeenth Amendment and the popular election of U. S. senators, the Eighteenth Amendment and Prohibition, and the abandonment of America’s traditional non-interventionist foreign policy, first following the Spanish-American War (Cuba and the Philippine Insurrection), in Latin America and Mexico, and more decisively in the First World War in Europe.
It was a time when a new ideological rationalization of state power was being shaped. The Progressive Era saw the birth of the cult of efficiency, with the new administrative state’s apolitical experts gingerly guiding public-policy instead of the archaic rule of political bosses and their ethnic urban political machines. Or, at least that was what was supposed to happen according to Progressives such as Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, Robert Lafollette, Jane Addams, Richard Ely, Lincoln Steffens, Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson.
Once upon a time there existed a scholarly consensus concerning the Progressive Era among liberal “court historians” of academia and popular history. These historians such as Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Link, George Mowry, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., held the uniform and unshakable belief that the “progressive reforms” enacted during this era were popular efforts by the people against the elite business interests dominating American political life.
Then in the early 1960s, all Hell broke loose. The provocative historian tossing the stick of dynamite into the staid liberal consensus was Gabriel Kolko. That incendiary was The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916.
Kolko was soon joined by other New Left colleagues under the tutelage of William Appleman Williams in challenging the reigning “corporate liberal” orthodoxy. Rather than “the people” being behind these “progressive reforms,” it was the very elite business interests themselves responsible, in an attempt to cartelize, centralize and control what was impossible due to the dynamics of a competitive and decentralized economy.
One of the first historians and economists to see the importance of Kolko’s revolutionary interpretation was Murray N. Rothbard.
In the academic jargon of a Hegelian dialectical triad, here is what happened: First there was the reigning liberal orthodoxy (thesis), challenged by the New Left revisionist interpretation (antithesis). Rothbard, using the insights of Austrian free market economics and libertarian class analysis, built upon the New Left critique and created a new libertarian historiography (synthesis) that has been carried on by scholars such as Roy A. Childs, Joseph R. Stromberg, and Robert Higgs.
Rothbard also discovered the “missing link” in this whole story, the role of statist postmillennial evangelical Protestants, born around the time of the Civil War, in fomenting the Progressive Era.
These ideological change agents, many of whom became increasingly secularized, abandoned their religious faith but not their evangelical belief in statism. They were the key to the rise of the welfare–warfare state in America.
The history of the Progressive Era has never been the same since.
7:04 pm on May 20, 2014 Email Charles Burris