Gabriel Kolko died in Amsterdam on May 19, 2014, at 81. As long as I knew him—and I met him around 1960, when I was a teenager and he was a graduate student in history at Harvard—he was motivated by three passions: a hatred of capitalism; a devotion to detailed empirical research; and the enjoyment of life with his wife, Joyce, and their many friends. (In later life, under the tutelage of French ultra-leftist companions, he became an ardent gastronome and mycologist; and his obsessive love for baroque music was as essential a part of his personality as his anti-capitalism.) Of course, these passions were not distinct: Joyce (the author of two valuable books on the global economy) was the co-researcher and co-author, formally or informally, of all his works; and he put so much effort into getting the facts right because he thought that accurate knowledge of reality is essential if it is to be changed. And the problem with capitalism is not just unfairness or alienation but its direct assault on people’s ability to enjoy life, an assault peaking in the destructive conflicts that characterize what Kolko, in the title of one of his most essential books, called the Century of War (1994).
Despite the flow of publications that made him one of the most prominent young historians of American society, Kolko’s deep involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement cost him long-term jobs at the two American universities he worked at before concluding that his only chance at a tenured position lay abroad (he accepted a position at York University in Canada). His first book, written while still a graduate student, was Wealth and Power in America (1962), which—in the teeth of an orthodoxy typified by J.K. Galbraith’s worries about the problems of an “affluent society,” demonstrated the generally deep and unchanging character of U.S. economic inequality. The Triumph of Conservatism (1963) punctured the myth of Progressivism to show how turn-of-the-century government regulation was engineered to serve the interests of major corporations in tempering the competitive free-for-all that threatened dependable profit rates. This was a major contribution to the historical revisionism of the 1960s that helped undermine liberal pieties and give substance to the concept of “corporate liberalism,” so stirringly named as the enemy of “the Movement” by S.D.S.’s Carl Oglesby at a mass anti-war demonstration in 1965.
Kolko turned his fact-structured spotlight on the foundations of American foreign policy, with a series of books on the origin and progress of the Cold War as another form of government service to corporate interests. This led to an attempt to place the war against Vietnam in the historical context of the American state’s service to capitalism, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (1985; repr. 1994). In the midst of all this original research, Kolko took time out to write a few general-history books, such as the great Main Currents in Modern American History of 1976. Of his many journal articles, two stand out in my mind: a pioneering study of the social effects of the massive post-war movement of women into the U.S. workplace (in Science and Society, 1978) and “Intelligence and the Myth of Capitalist Rationality in the United States” (1980), for the same journal, exploring in particular what was to be a continuing theme of his: the failure of intelligence in the direction of foreign policy, as an aspect of the inability of capitalist society to make use of its vaunted rationality and fact-gathering capabilities. Kolko showed that accurate information gathered by the C.I.A. about the situation in Vietnam had no effect on the framing of policy, directed by immediate political considerations. The general accuracy of this observation is demonstrated by the current helpless surprise of the U.S. government at the long-predicted descent of Iraq into full-scale sectarian civil war.
A lifelong leftist of Leninist persuasion, Kolko had the intellectual and emotional honesty to denounce the Vietnamese Communists whose cause he had so long supported when they turned their new state into yet another pillar of capitalist exploitation (see Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace, 1997). In this he differed admirably from many of the antiwar activists of my acquaintance, who simply went on with their lives, without much critical reflection, as the hollowness of earlier ideals became apparent. The Vietnamese experience, capping the horrors of Stalinism and the disaster of Maoism, led Kolko to conclude that socialism, understood as the historical movement embodied in revolutionary Leninist and social-democratic politics alike, had proved a failure. But he insisted to the end, for example, in a book published in 2006, that “Given its practice and consequences, opposition to what is loosely termed capitalism—the status quo in all its dimensions—is far more justified today than ever. Precisely because of this, a more durable and effective alternative to capitalism is even more essential.” Those of new generations seeking to create such alternatives will find much of use in Gabriel Kolko’s works, and much to be inspired by in his life.