Book Review

The Progressive-Regressive Method: Kolko and Huyssen

Huyssen Progressive Inequality[Note: This week and next I’ll be taking a look at a new book by David Huyssen, titled Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890-1920. I initially intended to write about the book and its argument as a whole, but the passing this week of the historian Gabriel Kolko drew me to a reading of his most famous book, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916, and I noticed some similarities regarding the term “Progressivism” and its historiography that I thought might be worth sharing in a separate post. Huyssen’s book can be read, I think, as two separate but deeply interrelated books—one about Progressivism and one about inequality—and I’ll pick up the second book next week.]

“Progressivism” has always been one of the most labile concepts in US historiography—historians have tried to bury it, have gone in search for it, have denied its existence, have tried to rename or redefine it, and, above all, have been unable to do without it. One of the reasons for its indispensability is the way that, when paired with the Gilded Age, it creates a readymade narrative, an immediate and simple dynamic. For both “Gilded Age” and “Progressive Era” are or can easily become denotatively judgmental phrases: Gilded Age is especially unique, as it is really the only commonly-used periodizing term within US history that is unambiguously hostile to its own subject, that cannot be reclaimed no matter how hard we trope.

“Progressive Era,” however, can have its polarity reversed, and that’s effectively what brings David Huyssen’s and Gabriel Kolko’s books together. Neither are the least bit reticent about their intentions to do away with the all-too-rosy view of the Progressives which has been the common currency of prior scholarship. (It is perhaps a marker of the respectful distance most Progressive Era historians have taken from Kolko’s heterodoxy that Huyssen’s book characterizes the generally approbative tone of scholarship in essentially the same terms as The Triumph of Conservatism, which was published 51 years earlier. In other words, Kolko was writing closer to the end of his period than Huyssen is to Kolko, and yet Huyssen sees precisely the same need for a thoroughgoing revaluation!)

Here’s how Kolko states his case:

I contend that the period from approximately 1900 until the United States’ intervention in the war, labeled the “progressive” era by virtually all historians was really an era of conservatism. Moreover, the triumph of conservatism… was the result not of any impersonal, mechanistic necessity but of the conscious needs and decisions of specific men and institutions.

Kolko’s argument is that historians had erred both in their judgment of the era and in approach. They have 1) “tended… to regard the development of the economy as largely an impersonal, inevitable phenomenon”; 2) “All too frequently… assumed that concentration and the elimination of competition—business giantism or monopoly—was the dominant tendency in the economy”; 3) regarded “federal legislation… [as] a reaction against the power of the giant monopoly, or a negative response to the very process of industrialism itself by a threatened middle-class being uprooted from its secure world by corporate capitalism.” (2, 7-8)

These errors in judgment, Kolko further argued, were the product of thinking small and writing piecemeal histories: their smallness of focus, he argues, almost paradoxically produces a sense of impersonality and mechanical change—because they are looking intently at a few people or at one group, the macro-dynamics of society and the economy are merely filled in with (bad) theory and generalities, which tend toward the impersonal and mechanical. Although there were monographs which depart from this consensus, Kolko allowed, there had yet to be “a serious effort to re-examine the structural conditions and problems of the economy during the period and to relate them to the political and especially the detailed legislative history of the era… there are still too many loose ends in the traditional view of the Progressive Period, and no synthesis… The Progressive Era has been treated as a series of episodes, unrelated to one another in some integrated manner, with growing enigmas as the quantity of new research into the period increases” (8-9).

Huyssen likewise takes Progressive Era historians to task on the grounds of both substance and method.

Historians have long referred to the period from roughly 1890 to 1920 as the Progressive Era. Materially speaking, however—and in important cultural ways as well—that era’s conclusion saw inequality progressing down the same track it had been traveling at the period’s advent. Inequality, then, was both Progressive by virtue of its period label, and progressive by virtue of its increasing severity. (2)

Yet that basic fact of widening inequality, despite the best efforts of reform, has not shaken historians’ belief that the Progressive Era was a period of amelioration.

In most contemporary narratives of the United States, the Progressive Era largely remedied such Gilded Age turmoil, ushering in the prototype of a regulatory state to tame the merciless beast of raw capitalism… Even histories that question this redemption narrative tend, more often than not, to demonstrate the power of working-class men, women, and people of color either driving reforms or protesting their regressive effects, thereby tightening the Progressive Era’s grip on its public reputation as a moment of improvement for U.S. class relations and democracy as a whole. (5)

Huyssen, like Kolko, sees this mischaracterization as, at least in part, a problem of method, and both see the historiographical fragmentation of the period as the root of that problem. Here’s Huyssen: “Histories of class in the Progressive Era have been shaped by an overriding concern with single classes or groups—the workers, the wealthy, the middle class, immigrants, women, and African Americans—and how their experience changed over time” (6). But Huyssen’s remedy is different from Kolko’s macroscopic aspirations; Huyssen argues that

If instead of focusing on the contours of particular classes or groups themselves, we were to bring disparate cross-class encounters into comparative perspective, then the  transformations that previously took center stage would give way to profound continuities (6).

In other words, as long as we write our histories of the Progressive Era as somebody’s search for order, as narratives with one group at a time—be that group the new middle class, the workers, the New Woman, immigrants, or the wealthy—fixed in the center of our story, trying to weather the storm, then the background will always look chaotic, overwhelming, momentous in its transformations. Yet if we look not at what happened to one group but at what happened between two groups, the dynamism that previously existed in the background of the period takes center stage as these two groups jockey and scrabble for position. The period is still pivotal, but not transformative in the same way and definitely not “redemptive”: nobody comes out of the period looking like they fought a heroic battle and lost, because the conflict is no longer against “disorder” but against other people.

What Kolko and Huyssen both wanted to do, I believe—and this rich harmony on the lower frequencies is strange given that Huyssen only cites Kolko once, and not even very substantially—is to cancel the general assumption that because the Progressive Era was largely “about” the tendency toward “bigness”—toward powerful national professional organizations and advocacy groups, toward industrial concentration, toward centralization of federal functions, toward fully national if not global markets—then the forces which drove it were of necessity increasingly impersonal, the product of flow charts and not foremen, of bureaucracy and not busybodies.

There are many differences between these two books, to be sure, and Huyssen’s book ought to stand on its own as well (which I’ll attempt next week) but in some ways, Huyssen has written a fine tribute to Kolko, and to his rejection of the supposed impersonality of economic policy and practice.

[Edit: I accidentally included one paragraph of my text–the para. beginning “In other words…”–in the last blockquote above. Fixed now, but oops!]