One sure way to irritate leftist historian Gabriel Kolko was to mistake him for a libertarian. From his office at Toronto’s York University, the American-born professor sent the libertarian monthly magazine Reason a strongly worded letter in 1973 when its editors were assembling a list of university courses that might be of interest to students with libertarian leanings:
“Under no circumstances,” he wrote, “should I be listed in your Registry, or thought to be in any manner a supporter of your exotic political position. If anything proves my thesis that American conservative ideology is more a question of intelligence than politics, it has been the persistent use of my works to buttress your position.
“As I made clear often and candidly to many so-called libertarians,” he went on to say, “I have been a socialist and against capitalism all of my life, my works are attacks on that system, and I have no common area of sympathy with the quaint irrelevancy called ‘free market’ economics. There has never been such a system in historical reality, and if it ever comes into being you can count on me to favor its abolition.”
Prof. Kolko, revisionist historian, author, university professor and well-known critic of U.S. domestic and foreign policy in the 20th century, died on May 19 at the age of 81, at his home in Amsterdam. He was suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder and chose euthanasia, according to his friend and former student Stan Vittoz.
A controversial chapter began for Prof. Kolko in the early 1960s, when he joined the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was active in the Committee to End the War in Vietnam (CEWV). At the time, the university’s Institute for Co-operative Research (ICR) was engaged in chemical and biological warfare research on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense. Project Spice Rack and Project Summit ran for a decade in secret until a Trotskyist undergraduate, Robin Maisel, who also happened to work at the campus bookstore, noticed in the fall of 1965 books on order by the ICR on Vietnamese politics and rice crop diseases. Prof. Kolko had had his own suspicions, he explained years later to his York University colleague Professor Marc Egnal.
Prof. Kolko’s Penn office was across from the nondescript ICR and he could see staff coming and going. Upon learning of the ICR’s curious book orders from Mr. Maisel, the CEWV sent an open letter to Penn’s university president, Gaylord Harnwell, demanding an immediate end to the germ warfare research. When days passed with no reply, Prof. Kolko confronted him. Dr. Harnwell confirmed the existence of the projects, but defended the research on the grounds of academic freedom and national interest. So Prof. Kolko and the CEWV brought the issue to the attention of local, national and international media, sending materials about the research to Ramparts magazine and Viet-Report, organizing teach-ins and campus groups that opposed Vietnam-related research. Campus-wide factions opened up, chaos ensued, but support shifted in favour of the administration. Penn froze Prof. Kolko’s salary and took away his faculty privileges, compelling him to leave.
After a brief stop at SUNY-Buffalo, he was lured to Canada by York University in 1970. Prof. Kolko was invited to teach history, accepted a professorship and bought a house, only to be denied a visa when border officials decided his presence in Canada would not be in the “national interest.” He successfully appealed and ended up teaching at York until his retirement. “I am … a Canadian citizen,” he wrote to the historian John Saywell, who was dean of arts in 1970 and later wrote a history of York University, “and do not have a U.S. passport. I am glad not to be a U.S. subject.”
Gabriel Kolko was born Aug. 17, 1932, in Paterson, N.J. His parents, Philip and Lillian, were both schoolteachers. They were “instrumental in my choice of interests,” he wrote, “and their intellectual curiosity and freedom were crucial in the way I was raised.”
He studied American social and economic history at Kent State University and the University of Wisconsin before earning his PhD at Harvard in 1962. During his studies, he was involved in the Student League for Industrial Democracy, a fledgling socialist activist group that sponsored lectures, raised funds for striking workers, walked picket lines, protested segregation and maintained a presence at several campuses.
In his academic work, Prof. Kolko established a reputation for seeing things differently. His early books, The Triumph of Conservatism (1963) and Railroads and Regulation (1965), revised the long-standing liberal consensus that the first two decades of the 20th century (known as the Progressive Era) was a time when government regulators reined in big business. Actually, business steered government, argued Prof. Kolko, not the other way around; it made and implemented regulations of its own in order to contain competition, effectively sheltering itself from the unpredictability of the free market. He argued that elite business interests controlled the so-called free market. Progressive Era reforms were, therefore, not the work of “the people,” but rather the work of the government in partnership with corporations. This policy of “corporate control of the liberal agenda,” as Prof. Kolko described it, shaped American social, economic and political life from the Progressive Era through to the Cold War and beyond.