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American Capitalism: Social Thought and Political Economy in the Twentieth Century

Author(s):Lichtenstein, Nelson
Reviewer(s):Hoeveler, J. David

Published by EH.NET (August 2006)


Nelson Lichtenstein, editor, American Capitalism: Social Thought and Political Economy in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. vi + 377 pp. $50 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8122-3923-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by J. David Hoeveler, Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

American Capitalism makes its way within the long shadows of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Two considerations define its purpose. First, it recognizes, and generally regrets, that capitalism has enjoyed a late ascendancy, almost unchallenged around the world and, furthermore, enjoys its high status in part because of the acquiescence of intellectuals in that ascendancy. Second, it wants to show that nonetheless a viable critique of capitalism once did flourish among American thinkers. Herein lay both the uses and the problems of this anthology. The various essays in the collection derive from a conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2005. They highlight some familiar thinkers, “key writers and intellectuals, from across the political and aesthetic landscape” (p. 3) — John Kenneth Galbraith, C. Wright Mills, Talcott Parsons, and others. But the book enhances interest by locating for its chapter subjects some fresh and less familiar individuals, too. Editor Lichtenstein hopes that the thirteen essays here will help awake the twenty-first century from its dogmatic slumber. “Historical consciousness,” he writes, “remains one of the intellect’s most potent subversions, which is why it is our hope that an historical understanding of twentieth-century capitalism can unsteady a few twentieth-first-century verities and provide a glimpse of a possible future that is something more than a return to the political economy of a pre-New Deal era that we once thought long-buried” (p. 17).

The book has four parts. It opens with two essays, by Howard Brick and David C. Engerman, which set theoretical frameworks for the other sections. These parts divide into the topics of “Liberalism and Its Social Agenda,” “A Critique from the Left,” and “The Rise of the Right.” Part II on liberalism brings essays about Clark Kerr (Paddy Riley), Galbraith (Kevin Mattson), and Peter Drucker (Nils Gilman). Part III on the Left offers pieces on Mills (Daniel Geary), C. L. R. James (Christopher Phelps), Oliver C. Cox (Christopher A. McAuley), and three historians of feminism (Daniel Horowitz). The section on the Right looks at Friedrich von Hayek (Juliet Williams), Congressional investigation committees (Alice O’Connor), Lemuel Ricketts Boulware (Kimberly Phillips-Fein), and Ayn Rand (Jennifer Burns).

Brick’s essay speaks to one of the considerations addressed in this volume. Titled “The Post-Capitalist Vision in Twentieth-Century American Social Thought,” it seeks to recover a not-so-distant past when an array of American thinkers anticipated a transition away from the dominant capitalism in American history, with the expectation that the advancing twentieth century would supply new models of class and power. That vision, Brick concedes, was “largely limited to left-liberal intellectuals” and he includes among that company John Dewey, the progressives of the early New Republic, some of the New Deal intellectuals, and others, such as members of the Frankfurt School. This introduction suits the next two parts of the book quite well. What struck me about several of the essays in these sections on liberalism and the Left was their authors’ efforts to place their subjects within a larger complex of social criticism, to have us see how they derived from and expanded on larger currents of American thought. Brick supplies the lead by constructing the “post-capitalist vision” from native American roots that yield a sustaining, non-Marxian heritage of dissent serviceable for current use amid the intellectual malaise forged by triumphant capitalism.

To illustrate the pattern, Mattson’s essay on Galbraith recognizes a major contributor to the critique of capitalism who led in fashioning an “aesthetic” or “qualitative” liberalism. But we should not understand Galbraith as simply a brilliant or idiosyncratic dissenter. Mattson traces connections to Thorstein Veblen, Dewey, Adolph Berle, and Gardiner Means, thus rooting Galbraith in a tradition of American progressivism. We see similar efforts in Geary’s essay on Mills. Recognized as a major early voice of the American New Left, Mills often appears, in historians’ depictions of him, as the bold rebel from Texas, the intellectual on a motorcycle, an iconoclast even among the liberals at Columbia University. Geary, however, makes it the burden of his essay to show how Mills’ whole intellectual trajectory came out of, and from within, the currents of American academic sociology in the 1940s. Mills drew on and expanded the discussions of modernization theory, contributed significantly to the debates about Max Weber in this decade, and ultimately gave a new and more radical application to very topical subjects in the discipline.

Taken together then, the essays, at least in several key cases in the volume from Brick’s opening through Part III, have the effect of presenting the critique of capitalism as a kind of intellectual Popular Front. The individual subjects, however special and personal their contribution, relate to, draw from, and altogether enrich a viable native tradition of dissent. They are in the American grain.

We have a different story when it comes to Part IV on the Right. There are interesting essays here, to be sure, but I believe that somewhere an opportunity was missed. Williams cites Hayek’s current status as “a Cold War hack” and seeks to redeem him by showing that has was really not that dogmatic a defender of laissez-faire economics. So actually he’s sort of liberal. O’Connor’s essay describes the congressional investigations led by B. Carroll Reese in 1953 against the Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, and Sage foundations, accusing them of “un-American subversive activities.” In this instance, the defense of capitalism is exemplified by anti-elitist, anti-intellectual populists. Phillips-Fein’s essay on Boulware, the union-buster for General Electric, describes another zealous ideologue for the free market and the rights of business to run its own affairs. The last three subjects in this section appear in a rather unsavory light, and not unfairly so, in my judgment. But their inclusion raises questions about capitalism and the conservative movement.

Burns’s essay on Rand does the best job of relating pro-capitalism to that movement. She recalls the intense warfare Rand had with William F. Buckley, Jr., at National Review in the late 1950s. The Catholic Buckley and others at the journal recoiled from the efforts of the atheist Rand to defend capitalism on the ethical grounds of pure self-interest, liberated from any altruistic standards or any notion of a social morality. Whittaker Chambers joined in the attack on her.

With the exception only of a brief discussion of Garry Wills and a mention of Russell Kirk, the section on the Right leaves the overwhelming imprecision that conservatism is synonymous with an uncritical defense of capitalism. Even Rand and Buckley, after all, were simply debating on what grounds capitalism merits its defense. Readers here would thus have not a hint of a whole tradition of American conservative thinking that has registered a profound skepticism toward capitalism. I would have suggested placing Brick’s essay in the section on liberalism, as it recognizes only leftist thinkers in the “post-capitalist vision.” Then I would have offered an essay that showed the larger dimensions of the capitalist critique by bringing into the dissent any number of thinkers representing “the Right.” For there is a kind of conservative, a partisan of history, tradition, and social continuity, that is inherently uncomfortable with the dynamics of capitalism, with its destabilizing social impact, with its erosion of the organic community, with the hedonist culture it generates, with its reckless individualism. Here one could include the prolific conservative writer Kirk, who often recalled with bitterness the ugly inroads of industrialism into his beloved rural Michigan; one could look at the essays of George Will in the 1970s (“Capitalism undermines traditional social structures and values; it is a relentless engine of change, a revolutionary inflamer of appetites, enlarger of expectations, diminisher of patience”), or Irving Kristol (“Godfather of Neoconservatism”), who, in his Two Cheers for Capitalism, presented a trenchant critique of capitalism’s moral legitimacy. The American grain is not only a left-liberal one.

J. David Hoeveler is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His most recent book is Creating the American Mind: Intellect and Politics in the Colonial Colleges.


Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII