What New Left History Gave Us

Historians in the News
tags: New Left




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....




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