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Praise the almighty buck

LITTLE BOSS: A Life of Andrew Carnegie by James Mackay Mainstream pounds 20
Andrew Carnegie is probably the most interesting of the quartet of "robber baron" tycoon-colossuses who bestrode the United States in the late 19th century. Unlike Henry Ford, J D Rockefeller and J P Morgan he had interests beyond making money, even though some of the later fads, such as the campaign for world peace, hardly enhanced his reputation. His risible belief that the Kaiser was a kind of proto-Gandhi reminds one of Bertrand Russell's remark that there are some ideas so absurd that only very intelligent people could possibly believe in them. Yet a Carnegie biography must perforce concentrate on the acquisition of millions, and here James Mackay provides a lucid guide.

Emigrating to America from Scotland at the age of 12, Carnegie began in a bobbin factory, became a clerk, and in his late teens was already an expert telegraph operator. He made his first stock market speculation aged 20, and at 24 was appointed superintendent of the western division of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Even though his investment income was soon 20 times his salary, he remained with the railway until he was 30, determined to stay at his post until the end of the American Civil War.

Seemingly gifted with the Midas touch, he accumulated a huge fortune but had the foresight to cash in his stocks and shares just before the great crash of 1873 which ruined Boss Tweed and many of the early tycoons. Thereafter Carnegie concentrated on heavy engineering and steel manufacturing, and by 1881 had an annual income of one million dollars. Many more millions followed after partnership with Henry Clay Frick, who had earlier cornered the US market in coke; by the turn of the century the diminutive Scot (5'2" - hence "Little Boss") was worth $400 million. He proceeded to give much of it away to carefully chosen causes.

Mackay rightly praises the Carnegie Foundation's philanthropy, but he underplays the extent to which his subject was a disaster as a human being. Carnegie was an ingrate and a moral coward. He owed his initial big break and the money for his first speculation to his superior in the Fenn Railroad, Tom Scott, but when his erstwhile mentor ran into financial difficulties, Carnegie did not lift a finger to help him. Purely through greed and megalomania he fell out with, and then doublecrossed, Frick.

Mackay's pages are littered with lawsuits from gulled colleagues and boardroom skulduggery of the most unsavoury kind.

But Carnegie liked to have frontmen to do his dirty work for him. While affecting sympathy for workers' rights, he was secretly preparing the most draconian cutbacks in wages and conditions at his steelworks. He slipped away to Scotland (where he spent six months of each year) just before the outbreak of the bitter 1892 Homestead strike, which is still remembered in the annals of American labour history for its violence and loss of life. The naive strikers were convinced that all would be right if only "Little Boss" could be contacted in Scotland, but in fact Carnegie was dispatching bloodthirsty cables to his managers urging the breaking of heads by Pinkertons.

Mackay lets his hero off far too lightly over all this. An expert in the biography of Scotsmen, perhaps he cannot really bring himself to go for the jugular. He makes much of Carnegie's interest in culture and literature, but does not seem to realise that, because the "Little Boss" should have known better than his philistine and semi-literate fellow-tycoons, his ruthless behaviour was actually more reprehensible, not less. Mackay points out that Carnegie, alone of the Big Four in tycoonery, wrote books, yet the problem is that they are all self-serving tissues of blatant lies, especially the Autobiography.

Nor is it easy to see what Mackay has come up with that is new. There is almost nothing about Carnegie's sexuality or private life apart from a hint that he suffered from a mother complex (he married at 52 and only after his domineering mother died). This volume lacks the massive scholarship of the Joseph Wall biography and the depth and penetration of John Winkler's Life. Mackay slaps Carnegie on the wrist for his appropriation of Burns, but the Boss's eulogy of "honest toil" and his hypocritical pretence to be a human being in the Burns mould really calls for vehement excoriation. For Carnegie the guinea's stamp was always more "gowd" than any man, and the only Almighty he ever believed in was the almighty dollar.