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.
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.”
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