Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

American historian Gabriel Kolko, seen on September 23, 1970, was hired by Toronto’s York University in 1970 but was refused landed immigrant status in Canada. He successfully appealed and ended up teaching at York until his retirement, considering himself ‘a Canadian citizen.’ (Franz Maier For The Globe and Mail)
American historian Gabriel Kolko, seen on September 23, 1970, was hired by Toronto’s York University in 1970 but was refused landed immigrant status in Canada. He successfully appealed and ended up teaching at York until his retirement, considering himself ‘a Canadian citizen.’ (Franz Maier For The Globe and Mail)

Gabriel Kolko: A leftist academic who saw things differently Add to ...

Prof. Kolko’s revisionist approach catapulted him to the forefront of the New Left, which by the late 1960s expanded its anti-establishment critique to include America’s involvement in Vietnam.

In his view, the Vietnam War was an act of American imperial aggression following the collapse of French colonialism in Indochina. He and his wife, Joyce, visited North Vietnam several times during the war, going often at the invitation of the people the Americans were fighting. They were in Da Nang as guests of the North Vietnamese and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam when Saigon fell and they were given the honour of announcing the event to the local population over the radio in French.

Together the Kolkos wrote The Limits of Power (1972), a scathing critique of the role of the United States in Cold War world affairs, arguing that anti-communism disguised the U.S.’s goal of creating a global economy favourable to American capitalism. In Anatomy of a War (1985), he analyzed the Vietnam War from the perspective of the Vietnamese Communists in order to counter the traditionally American-centric view of the affair. In subsequent books, Prof. Kolko critiqued the failure of America’s policy of containment and the conceit that the U.S. could have reshaped the world in its own image during the Cold War.

Benjamin Lowinsky, a York University professor, remembers Prof. Kolko, his doctoral thesis supervisor, as a distinguished scholar and an iconoclastic intellectual whose “prolific, rigorously researched, wide-ranging and critically revisionist scholarship testified powerfully to his alternative vision of history and society.” Prof. Kolko had a special ability, Prof. Lowinsky says, “to raise seminal and provocative questions about the status quo and to foster critical, transformative thought and ideas about power residing in our most sacred institutions.” He was also “an inspirational teacher and mentor both inside and outside the classroom, setting a powerful example for his students to follow.”

Dr. Vittoz remembers a lighter side to a man burdened emotionally by Vietnam and not generally known for his sense of humour. As a doctoral student under Prof. Kolko’s supervision, Dr. Vittoz was invited to the Kolkos’ Toronto house for dinner one evening in the 1970s. The hosts had a tabby cat named Seraphim. “We were sitting around talking after dinner,” Dr. Vittoz recalls, “and Gabriel suddenly stood up and said that he had something to show us. He then proceeded to voice a not-too-bad imitation of Henry Kissinger speaking about something, which provoked a ferocious, hissing, claw-swiping attack by a clearly well-trained Seraphim on the cuff of one of Gaby’s pant legs.”

Paul Lovejoy, Distinguished Research Professor and Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora History at York, “admired Prof. Kolko immensely for his integrity, his sophistication, and his wisdom.” Prof. Kolko didn’t suffer the opinions of many of his colleagues, but he liked Prof. Lovejoy. The Kolkos had a reputation for being excellent cooks and Prof. Kolko was a full-fledged mycophile.

“He only allowed me to explore his morel patch,” Prof. Lovejoy recalled, “when he knew he was going to leave Toronto. Anyone who gathers morels knows how to keep the secret of where they are located. So annually, in early May, I would visit the Kolko patch, always thinking of the treasure he had bestowed upon me … One year, I collected over 100 mushrooms.”

Prof. Kolko and his wife, the writer Joyce Kolko (née Manning), author of several important books on global political economy, moved to Amsterdam in 1992, where they continued to write, listen to Bach and search for morels. He was a regular contributor to the political newsletter CounterPunch. Ms. Kolko, whom he married in 1955, predeceased him in April, 2012.

Prof. Kolko wrote more than a dozen books over a 50-year span, most of which garnered lively, serious and often conflicting responses from academic reviewers.

In later books, including After Socialism (2006), The Age of War (2006) and World in Crisis (2009), Prof. Kolko brought his informed assault on U.S. foreign policy to bear on the post-Cold War era, zeroing in on the precariousness of today’s international environment. The free thinker who inspired a generation of students in the 1960s sounded a more pessimistic note, though, lamenting the myopia of 19th-century social theorists, the failures of socialism, the proclivity of capitalist states to go to war and “a new world,” noted the sociologist Frank Furedi, “where intellectual and cultural life had become estranged from the promise of the Enlightenment.”

“After Stalin, Mao and Blair,” Prof. Kolko concluded, “socialism is today irreversibly dead … but capitalist theories are no less erroneous and irrelevant, and the failure of all concepts, of all stripes, makes the task of reconstructing social thought even more daunting just as our reality makes it even more essential.”

To submit an I Remember: obit@globeandmail.com

Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.

Single page

Follow us on Twitter: @globeandmail

 

Topics:

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories