Dr. Colburn, Fall 1995, Modern America
Kolko, Gabriel. The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1963.
The Triumph of Conservatism is one of the early monographs by Gabriel Kolko, an eminent scholar from the 1960's generation of New Left historians. Kolko initiates a re-examination of the Progressive Era, challenging the consensus that Progressivism was a middle-class reaction to the power of big business.(6) Kolko also defies the prevalent opinion that the federal government and presidents in particular, sought to neutralize if not destroy the power of big corporations. According to Kolko, major American businesses not only did not oppose many of the regulatory acts from 1900 through 1916 but actively sought and supported many reforms and regulations. The effect of government and big business actions was the creation of 'political capitalism,' "an utilization of political outlets to attain stability and rationalization in the economy."(3) In the extended introduction, Kolko elaborates further on his terminology, formulates main questions, clarifies methods, and states his theoretical sources, before commencing his interpretation of the 1890-1920 period. Kolko summarizes an enormous amount of compelling ideas and data. The ability to present in comprehensive form his summary and conclusions to the reader is one of the main merits of his book.
Kolko's analysis is based on the correspondence between businesses and government agencies and on papers of various government officials, including presidents. The author meticulously follows the evolution of the largest American monopolies and mergers, the changes in financial capitalism, and the relation of American presidents from McKinley to Wilson toward big business. The merger movement and the financial structure of the United States became "a matter for the combined resources of the national state, a political, rather than economic matter."(146) The legacy of reform, initiated by Theodore Roosevelt, had at the time of William Howard Taft ambiguous character, reflecting the very nature of progressivism.(159) The creation of the Federal Trade Commission and Trust Legislation in 1913 confirmed that progressivism was in fact a conservative movement and that the Democrat Wilson continued the policy of his Republican predecessors.(205) Wilsonian policies marked the triumph of political capitalism, the synthesis of policies and economies.(279) Businessmen were the major initiators of federal intervention in the economy. The absence of a political party with such a program that suggested democracy and mass involvement foreclosed any challenge to big business's conception of political intervention.
Kolko's final chapter deserves particular attention. The author states that the economic theory of Karl Marx, the socio-political concepts of Max Weber, and the social theory of Thorstein Veblen were the actual sources for his paradigm. The chapter is more than an overview of his theoretical sources. Presenting at length the theoretical models of the three famous thinkers, Kolko accentuates the failure to project their theories over American society and government (in Marx and Weber's cases), or the omission to grasp the structural reality of economy (in the case of Veblen). Consequently, Kolko expands and improves upon their theses; his discourse on the Progressive Era adjusts their ideas to conditions in the United States. The results provide a provocative and fascinating interpretation of a period from the recent American past.
However, in his impressive analysis on American history, Kolko leaves important questions unanswered. He fails to discuss the anticipated consequences of legislation and presidential activities for the economic structure. He does not inquire as to whether big business and concentration was in fact as essential to economic activity as the businessmen of the day thought. Although he criticizes his predecessors for neglecting the larger role of the Congress in favor of the dramatic emphasis on presidents, he leaves the impression of committing much the same error.
On the other hand, claims the author, "there are too many loose ends in the traditional view of the Progressive Period, and no synthesis."(9) His own work further supports this claim. The Triumph of Conservatism, despite splendid theoretical structure and persuasive logic, falls short of completeness and cannot also be classified as a synthesis of the Progressive Era.