Gabriel Kolko

Gabriel Kolko


* pro-Marxist historian
* Viewed America as a force for evil in the world
* Believed that the Cold War was not about Soviet expansionism but an American attempt to promote free trade and corporate profits
* Criticized the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as imperialistic, destructive, and self-defeating
* Died in May 2014

Gabriel Kolko was born on August 17, 1932 in Paterson, New Jersey. After studying American Social and Economic History at Kent State University (BA, 1954) and the University of Wisconsin (MS, 1955), he earned a Ph.D. At Harvard University in 1962 and proceeded to become a leading historian of the early New Left. He taught for several years at the University of Pennsylvania, where he became active in the Committee to End the War in Vietnam and later participated in a private tribunal that Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre organized to investigate American “war crimes” in Vietnam. Throughout his adult life, Kolko derided America as a nation “intellectually and culturally undeveloped”; “blind to itself — its past, its present, and its future”; in short, an “evil society.”

Kolko first made a name for himself in academic circles for two books, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916 (1963) and Railroads and Regulation, 1877-1916 (1965). In the latter book, reports the British newspaper Telegraph: “[H]e challenged the standard view that the so-called’“progressive era’ of the early 20th century had been a time when government regulators had cracked down on freewheeling big business. In fact, he argued, it was big business which pressed for, and got, regulation to shield itself from upstart competitors. This policy of ‘corporate control of the liberal agenda’ had shaped American social, economic and political life ever since.”

In the 1960s as well, Kolko introduced a strident and ideological form of history into the academic world. Writing from a Marxist perspective, he helped construct the intellectual edifice of modern academic anti-Americanism, reflexively exculpating America’s adversaries while portraying America’s past and present in such dark tones as to make the nation repellent and – absent a socialist revolution – beyond redeeming.

After leaving the University of Pennsylvania, Kolko spent a brief period teaching at SUNY-Buffalo. Then, in 1970, he joined the the York University (in Toronto, Canada) history department, where he remained until his retirement in 1992. He developed into one of the most influential historians in American academia, and his books became required reading at many premier colleges and universities.

Kolko authored more than ten books on American history (including two on the origins of the Cold War), a synthesis of American history after 1865, and an overview of the Vietnam War. These books influenced a school of radical historians, including Thomas McCormick, Lloyd Gardner, Walter LaFeber, Robert Buzzanco, and Bruce Cumings. Fellow radical and America-hater Noam Chomsky called Kolko’s 1972 book, The Limits of Power, “the most important analytic study of evolving U.S. policy in this period….”

Kolko reciprocated the adulation. In a blurb for Chomsky’s 1979 book The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Kolko praised the author for having produced a “brilliant, shattering, and convincing account of United States-backed suppression of political and human rights in the Third World.” According to Kolko, Chomsky’s works should be “obligatory reading for any American seeking to comprehend the role of the United States in the world since 1946.”

Like other radical academics, Kolko prided himself on being a political activist, not to say revolutionary. Throughout the Vietnam War, he traveled numerous times to France and to North and South Vietnam, meeting with Communist officials and advising them on how best they could defeat the United States. He also organized aid shipments to the Communists, called upon fellow leftists to wage war against American imperialism, and backed the Communist cause around the world. In May 1971 he pleaded with Americans to send money to a group called “Canadian Aid for Vietnam Civilians” (CAVC), an organization that, according to Kolko, allocated “45 percent of its income each to the NLF [National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam] and North Vietnam” and would help alleviate “the suffering the war [had] inflicted on all the people of Vietnam.” In other words, 90 percent of CAVC’s money was earmarked for the Communist aggressors.

The starting point for Kolko’s work was the idea that America was a totalitarian nation, where the rich ruled and the poor obeyed. The “ruling class,” according to Kolko, “defines the essential preconditions and functions of the larger American social order, with its security and continuity as an institution being the political order’s central goal in the post-Civil War historical experience.”

Kolko contended that the ruling class dominated both the Republican and Democratic parties, which had no significant differences between them that Kolko was able to detect. This theoretical framework is a crib of Karl Marx’s attack on “bourgeois democracy,” in which the state is just “the executive committee of the ruling class.” Republicans and Democrats, Kolko explained, were “inalterably wedded to the desirability of capitalism as a general economic framework.” In Kolko’s presentation, reform movements like Progressivism and New Deal liberalism, for example, amount to nothing more than efforts to promote “efficiency” in preserving America’s totalitarian system.

Kolko asserted that America’s unjust political order produces vast riches for only a few — and poverty and inequality for the majority — while ensuring that the ruling class became “the final arbiter and beneficiary of the existing structure of American society and politics at home and of United States power in the world.”

From this ideological premise, Kolko concluded that the Cold War was not about Soviet expansionism, but rather was an American attempt to promote free trade and corporate profits. In Kolko’s writings, the Kremlin’s actions played no role in determining U.S. policy. In fact the opposite was the case. Kolko depicted the Truman Doctrine and other American policies as having little concern for defending relatively free societies from the fate of the Kremlin’s East European satellites. He viewed them instead as expressions of America’s own bid for world economic hegemony. Or, as Kolko put it, the United States set out (during and after World War II) to “restructure the world so that American business could trade, operate, and profit without restrictions everywhere.”

According to Kolko, fears that American leaders expressed over Communist expansion in Eastern Europe were merely a cover for the foregoing agenda. Concern over the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia and other Kremlin aggressions, he maintained, were so much Western fantasy and Cold War paranoia. For America’s ruling class, said Kolko, the central foreign policy concern “was not the containment of Communism, but rather more directly the extension and expansion of American capitalism according to its new economic power and needs.” Notably, Cold War Soviet leaders said exactly the same thing.

In Kolko’s calculus, the threat that most troubled American leaders was not the Soviet Union; it was a skeptical Congress, a public that wanted peace, and leftwing movements that supported the Communists’ millenarian objectives. But through the use of scare tactics, bribes, and violence, he explained, America’s rulers managed to get their way. “It was only the fear of Russia and Communism,” wrote Kolko,””a weak and irrelevant argument that the [Truman] administration did not believe … that finally swung” Congress and the American people to support a Cold War crusade in the form of the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, and NATO. “The fear of Communism,” Kolko wrote in 1976, “was … a well-worn technique of political mobilization at home — one that was to last with diminishing efficiency after 1963, until our own day.”

Kolko dismissed entirely the influence of domestic political pressures and public opinion on American statesmen. In his writing on the early Cold War, he said nothing about such policy-shaping phenomena as “McCarthyism” and the conspiratorial activities of the Communist Party USA or its espionage for the Kremlin.

As a self-identified champion of the oppressed, Kolko detested U.S. Cold War foreign-policy planners as mere servants of the ruling class and portrayed their motives and judgments in the harshest light possible. When he turned his attention to the Kremlin and its Cold War leaders, by contrast, he did an about-face: He portrayed Joseph Stalin and his bloodthirsty henchmen as defensive, diplomatic, and generous. He He also claimed that the Red Army had outperformed the American army during World War II, and that Stalin had even refused to press his military gains on the British or Americans for political advantage.

Kolko argued further that the Nazis had crushed Anglo-American forces with their December 1944 Ardennes offensive despite the Allies’ “overwhelming … superiority in arms and men,” and that what had saved the U.S. and British was the Red Army. By the time of the Yalta conference in February 1945, he said, “the military prestige of the Russians was never greater” and “the Americans and British there listened with deference and awe as Stalin described the fire power and speed of the Red Army.”

The reality of the war in Europe was quite different. In The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War (1973), Robert Maddox points out how Kolko failed to mention that Anglo-American forces actually stopped Hitler’s December offensive before the Russian forces began theirs from the east. It is also clear that Allied armies in the west did not share an “overwhelming” superiority of arms and men, and clearly not in the Ardennes. Nazis outnumbered American soldiers three-to-one in the Ardennes and, according to Victor Davis Hanson, “over six-to-one at the initial point of collision.” Further, Nazi troops benefited by having four times as many tanks as the Americans, and of better quality as well (the German Panther and Tiger tanks were both superior to the Sherman M4). Despite these odds, and due in no small measure to General Patton’s leadership, the Americans beat back the German offensive (the Battle of the Bulge) and inflicted far more casualties on the Germans than they themselves suffered.

Kolko was enamored of the Red Army and never bothered to mention to his readers the hell that took place in its wake as it occupied the nations of millions of East Europeans. This was in keeping with Kolko’s basic view that blame for the Cold War rested squarely on shoulders of America’s expanding commercial empire, and not on the Soviets who actually conquered and then ruled previously-sovereign states.

In Kolko’s history, Stalin himself was only secondarily a Communist. He was primarily a pragmatist and, even more endearingly (and unlike American leaders), a man with a “tolerant sense of humor” who appreciated “flexibility and subtlety” on policy matters. Kolko wrote of the period in which the Kremlin absorbed the East European states behind an Iron Curtain as a time when “the dominant theme in Soviet proclamations on international affairs …was the possibility and likelihood of coexistence and peace between Russia and the West.”

In The Politics of War and The Limits of Power, which cover this time period, Stalin’s historically unprecedented crimes are completely absent from Kolko’s narrative. These books have nothing to say about Stalin’s purges, the horrific cost of collectivization, the Gulag, Stalin’s control over the press, and the constant jailing and killing of dissidents or the influences of these developments on historical events.

In a 1990 epilogue to The Politics of War, Kolko admitted what he had previously denied — that Soviet troops “were indeed responsible for the Katyn Forest liquidations of Polish officers.” But he refused to change his basic benevolent interpretation of Stalin, or to alter his assessment that the West’s fears of the Soviet Union had been manufactured out of thin air. Recent scholarship, Kolko claimed preposterously, only served to reinforce his original conclusions.

Kolko’s apologist history extended to Communist expansion and rule in Eastern Europe, China, and Korea. According to Kolko, Eastern Europeans welcomed their Communist conquerors and the satellite regimes they installed. The Eastern European satellites, he explained, managed to avoid “the crises of war, stagnation, and unemployment that inflicted misery on the working class of the capitalist economies of the West.”

In reality, however, the political and economic misery that Soviet rule inflicted on the working classes of Eastern Europe produced revolts in Poland and Hungary and eventually led to the demise of the Soviet system. Moreover, the West Germans had to tax themselves $100 billion after the Berlin Wall came down to bring their Eastern brethren, who had been economically raped by the Soviet system, up to reasonable levels.

Kolko’s Asian stories adhered to a similar party line. According to Kolko, Mao and his Communist colleagues created a “people’s democracy” and led their followers with “honesty, efficiency, and moderation”; Chinese Communist assemblies were “organized everywhere” as “open forums of criticism”; and Communists “easily forgave opposition if cooperation was forthcoming later.” The Chinese Communist army, Kolko added, “did not loot, but grew its own food and worked with the peasants. Its morale was high, its commitment great.”

Kolko also believed that Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung led his people as a “Communist and national hero” who instituted much-needed land reform, “introduced a massive education program,” and “passed extensive worker welfare decrees in 1946 regulating working hours, vacations, and social insurance.”

Kolko’s velvet-glove treatment of Communist dictatorships was also evident in his analysis of the Vietnam War. According to Kolko, Comintern agent Ho Chi Minh was the best chance the Vietnamese had to create a just and prosperous society. In Anatomy of a War (1985), Kolko praiseed the Vietnamese Stalinists for their “undogmatic” nature and their genius for “producing brilliant tacticians, above all Ho Chi Minh….” Their “real strength…,” he wrote, was their “capacity to relate to the class needs of the majority of the nation.” Kolko added that Ho’s fellow leaders were “collegial” and “cooperative”; that they were “free of the problems of egoism”; that their “harmony became a fundamental source of the Party’s strength”; and that they respected all people and insisted that “nothing could be done to hurt their property.””Hanoi press releases said the same thing.

Kolko conceded that, on occasion, the Vietnamese Communists became a bit too exuberant. He noted, for example, that during North Vietnam’s land reform campaign in the 1950s, a few “demoralized cadres” who lacked close supervision killed a few thousand landowners. Regardless, by 1957 “the landless and poor peasants had improved their position radically while even the middle peasantry was able to enlarge its land ownership.” Kolko was so taken with Vietnam’s Communists that, in The Roots of American Foreign Policy, he argued that “with a better vision of their own future,” Americans should “understand their profound debts to liberation movements everywhere and in Vietnam most of all….”

Kolko did not reconsider his Communist sympathies or this rosy picture of Communist rule when the North Vietnamese in 1975 overran South Vietnam, established a dictatorship, executed tens of thousands of “enemies of the people,” incarcerated a million political prisoners, and drove two million Vietnamese into exile. Nor did Kolko reconsider his anti-Americanism in 1989 when the East Europeans tore down the Berlin Wall and sent the Red Army home.

Instead, Kolko continued to peddle the Communist worldview while winning accolades from his academic fellow travelers for his political correctness.

Kolko also made contributions to the Left’s anti-American historiography of the War on Terror by offering numerous justifications for Islamic violence and hatred towards the West. In Another Century of War? — published a year after 9/11 — and in a series of articles written in 2003 and 2004 for _Counterpunch _magazine, Kolko criticized America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as imperialistic, destructive, and self-defeating.

In Kolko’s perspective, blame for 9/11 rested not with al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, but with the United States. American failures abroad, he wrote, had “led desperate men to crash planes into the symbols of American power on September 11.” “Suffice it to say,” he elaborated, “that the United States’ sponsorship … of state terrorism is one of the crucial reasons it now has to confront violence on its own soil. History has come full circle.”

Just as Kolko dismissed the idea that Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China constituted threats to America, so he rejected the view that the Islamic perpetrators of 9/11 posed any real threat to the modern-day United States. “Whether they are ‘terrorists’ or ‘freedom fighters’ depends wholly on one’s viewpoint,” Kolko argued, “because those seeking to attain political goals fight with what they have: hijacked airplanes and concealed bombs [rather than] B-52s and laser-guided rockets.”

In Kolko’s later books such as After Socialism (2006), The Age of War (2006), and World in Crisis (2009), he begrudgingly admitted that the socialist cause which he had supported for decades had been a failure, even as he pronounced capitalism an unacceptable alternative: “After Stalin, Mao and Blair,” wrote Kolko, “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.”

Kolko died at his home in Amsterdam on May 19, 2014. He was suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder and chose euthanasia, which was permitted under Dutch law.

Most of this profile is adapted from the article, “The Ugly Anti-American,” written by Anders G. Lewis and published by on July 8, 2004.

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