Gabriel Kolko (17 August 1932) is an American historian and author. His research interests include American capitalism and political history, the Progressive Era, and US foreign policy in the 20th century. He has been called "an incisive critic of the Progressive Era and its relationship to the American empire."
Background and education
Kolko is of Jewish heritage, and was born in Paterson, New Jersey. He attended Kent State University (BA 1954) and the University of Wisconsin (MS 1955), and received his PhD from Harvard University in 1962. Following graduation he taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at SUNY-Buffalo. In 1970 he joined the history department of York University in Toronto, and is now an emeritus professor of history there.
Kolko was considered a leading historian of the New Left, joining William Appleman Williams and James Weinstein in advancing the corporate liberalism idea whereby the old Progressive historiography of the "interests" versus the "people" was reinterpreted as a collaboration of interests aiming towards stabilizing competition. Kolko argued that big business turned to the government for support because of its inefficiency and inability to prevent the economy veering between boom and bust, which aroused fears that the concomitant discontent amongst the general public would lead to the imposition of popular constraints upon business. Its embrace of government led to their intertwinement, with business becoming the dominant strand. Kolko, in particular, broke new ground with his critical history of the Progressive Era. He suggested that free enterprise and competition were vibrant and expanding during the first two decades of the 20th century; thereafter, however, "the corporate elite—the House of Morgan, for example—turned to government intervention when it realized in the waning 19th century that competition was too unruly to guarantee market share." This behavior is known as corporatism, but Kolko dubbed it political capitalism, "the merger of the economic and political structures on behalf of the greater interests of capitalism". Kolko's thesis "that businessmen favored government regulation because they feared competition and desired to forge a government–business coalition" is one that is echoed by many observers today. Former Harvard professor Paul H. Weaver uncovered the same inefficient and bureaucratic behavior from corporations during his stint at Ford Motor Corporation. Murray Rothbard thought highly of Kolko's work on the history of relations between big business and government. As one profile put it:
For Gabriel Kolko, the enemy has always been what sociologist Max Weber called "political capitalism"—that is, "the accumulation of private capital and fortunes via booty connected with politics." In Kolko's eyes, "America's capacity and readiness to intervene virtually anywhere" pose a grave danger both to the U.S. and the world. Kolko has made it his mission to study the historical roots of how this propensity for intervention came to be. He was also one of the first historians to take on the regulatory state in a serious way. Kolko's landmark work, The Triumph of Conservatism, is an attempt to link the Progressive Era policies of Theodore Roosevelt to the national-security state left behind in the wake of his cousin Franklin's presidency.
Kolko's indictment of what he calls "conservatism" is not aimed at the Southern Agrarianism of Richard Weaver or the Old Right individualism of Albert Jay Nock. In fact, Kolko's thesis—that big government and big business consistently colluded to regulate small American artisans and farmers out of existence—has much in common with libertarian and traditionalist critiques of the corporatist state. The "national progressivism" that Kolko attacks was, in his own words, "the defense of business against the democratic ferment that was nascent in the states." Coming of age in the '50s and '60s, Kolko saw firsthand the destruction of the "permanent things" as the result of the merging of Washington, D.C. and Wall Street. A sense of place and rootedness lingers just beneath the surface of his work.
The Limits of Power (1972), which looks at US foreign policy during the early Cold War period and which Kolko co-authored with his wife, Joyce, is described by The Cambridge History of the Cold War (2010), as "[a]mong the most important analyses of US policy and the origins of the Cold War". "Even among more traditionally-minded scholars," noted one unsympathetic writer, "the Kolkos have been credited with considerable insight and praised for the breadth of their research." Arch-traditionalist John Lewis Gaddis, for example, described The Limits of Power as "an important book." Kolko is not, of course, without his critics.
He has also contributed to the historiography of the Vietnam War. In The Roots of American Foreign Policy (1969), a book that, according to Richard H. Immerman, "became must reading for a generation of diplomatic historians", Kolko contended that the American failure to 'win' the war demonstrated the inapplicability of the US policy of containment. Later, in Anatomy of a War (1985), Kolko became, along with writers such as George Kahin, a leading writer of the postrevisionist, or synthesis, school, which suggested, among other things, that the revisionist school was wrong in speculating that the United States could have won the war. One sympathetic reviewer notes that Kolko's work has been relegated to the margins of the Vietnam War literature. He was "the first American historian to establish a distinction between Diem and Thieu, on the one hand, and the population of the Saigon milieu on the other. It might even be said that he was the first to insist that there was such a milieu and to attempt a systematic study of is inhabitants." Regarding his country's aggression against the Southeast Asian country, Kolko wrote, in a manner reminiscent of Bernard Fall, that "[t]he United States in Vietnam unleashed the greatest flood of firepower against a nation known to history", resulting in "the urbanization of a rural society in a manner unique in this century, for it was far more brutal and disorienting to the population than any that a large Third World nation has ever experienced."
Kolko is a Leftist and an anti-capitalist, though has sometimes expressed agreement with the analysis of libertarian capitalists, and regards Murray Rothbard as an astute intellect. Regarding socialism, Kolko wrote in After Socialism (2006) that, both as theory and as movement, it is "essentially dead"; that its analysis and practice have both been failures; and that it "simply inherited most of the nineteenth century's myopia, adding to the illusions of social thought". He maintains, however, that capitalism is neither a rational nor a stable basis for a peaceful society: "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."
As noted by Georgetown historian David S. Painter, "while very critical of Marxist and Communist movements and regimes, Kolko also counts among the human, social, and economic costs of capitalism the 'repeated propensity' of capitalist states to go to war." Kolko appears to hold Mao Zedong in particular contempt:
What Mao called theory, with the intense vanity which made him manipulate the [Chinese Communist] party into passing encomiums to him, was nothing more than tactics, tactics designed to lead a national revolution of a reformist character. What is less important than the superficiality of the thought is its intent—designed to make a coalition and victory politically possible. Mao was a great strategist and tactician in the acquisition of power, but in fact below even Stalin as a thinker. His ideology was derived, intellectually crude, and strictly relegated to this desire and passion to use the dynamics of China in chaos to attain power. He never rose to even Stalin's sterile level of generality and abstraction, or above homilies that took more from Sun Yat-sen than Lenin. He always knew what was right for the moment, and in this regard he was a genius. [… Mao]'s obsession with being confirmed as the Great Sage made him dogmatic about a theoretical line so nebulous and pragmatic that it was always successful as a tactical armory.
His Jewish heritage has not prevented Kolko from being harshly critical of Zionism and Israel. Kolko regards the result of the creation of Israel as "abysmal": Zionism produced "a Sparta that traumatized an already artificially divided region", "a small state with a military ethos that pervades all aspects of [it]s culture, its politics and, above all, its response to the existence of Arabs in its midst and at its borders". Overall, his conclusion is that there is "simply no rational reason" that justifies Israel's creation.
"The US has never been able to translate its superior arms into political success, and that decisive failure is inherent in everything it attempts", observed Kolko in the context of the Iraq War, just after George W. Bush's Mission Accomplished speech. He correctly predicted that Iraq would be no different, that "its regionalism and internecine ethnic strife will produce years of instability."
Kolko is a regular contributor to the political newsletter CounterPunch.
Partial publications list
- World in Crisis: the End of the American Century (London: Pluto Press, 2009).
- After Socialism: Reconstructing Critical Social Thought (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006).
- The Age of War: The United States Confronts the World (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006).
- Another Century of War? (New York, NY: The New Press, 2002).
- Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace (London and New York, NY: Routledge, 1997).
- Century of War: Politics, Conflicts, and Society since 1914 (New York, NY: The New Press, 1994).
- Confronting the Third World: United States Foreign Policy, 1945–1980 (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1988).
- Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States, and the Modern Historical Experience (New York, NY: The New Press, 1985; rep. 1994 with new afterword).
- Main Currents in Modern American History (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1976).
- (Co-author with Joyce Kolko). The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945–1954 (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1972).
- (Co-editor with Richard Falk and Robert Jay Lifton). Crimes of War: A Legal, Political-Documentary, and Psychological Inquiry into the Responsibility of Leaders, Citizens, and Soldiers for Criminal Acts in Wars (New York, NY: Random House, 1971).
- The Roots of American Foreign Policy: An Analysis of Power and Purpose (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969).
- The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943–1945 (New York, NY: Random House, 1968; rep. 1990 with new afterword).
- Railroads and Regulation, 1877–1916 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965). Based on his PhD dissertation.
- The Triumph of Conservatism (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1963).
- Wealth and Power in America: An Analysis of Social Class and Income Distribution (New York, NY: Praeger, 1962).
- Distribution of Income in the United States (New York, NY: Student League for Industrial Democracy, 1955).
- Iggers, Wang & Mukherjee 2008, p. 256.
- Diggins 1977, p. 578.
- Dylan Hales (1 December 2008). "Left Turn Ahead". The American Conservative. Retrieved 15 November 2012.
- Gabriel Kolko (25 August 2009). "Israel: A Stalemated Action of History". counterpunch.org. Retrieved 15 November 2012.
- Contemporary Authors: First Revision, Volumes 5-8, p. 655.
- Gaddis 1972; Immerman 1987, p. 134.
- Novick 1988, p. 439.
- Chandler & Licht 2000, p. 65.
- Sheldon Richman (3 February 2011). "Libertarian Left". The American Conservative. Retrieved 15 November 2012.
- Kolko 1976, p. 12.
- Weaver 1988.
- Bradley & Donway 2013; Rothbard 1965, pp. 13–6.
- Leffler & Westad 2010a, p. 515.
- Stueck 1973, pp. 537–8.
- Gaddis 1972.
- Diggins 1977.
- Immerman 1987, p. 134.
- Hunt 1997, p. 402–3, where Hunt justifies this assessment, and also writes that, "[s]oon after its appearance, I argued that Anatomy of a War was the best book on the subject".
Kolko is not mentioned in the relevant bibliographical essay in The Cambridge History of the Cold War (Leffler & Westad 2010b, pp. 549–551).
- Hunt 1997, p. 405.
- Kolko 1985, p. 200.
Fall wrote that "Viet-Nam as a cultural and historic entity […] is threatened with extinction [… as] the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size." See Fall 1967, pp. 33–4, 47.
- Kolko 1985, p. 201.
- Gabriel Kolko (29 September 2012). "The New Deal Illusion". counterpunch.org. Retrieved 23 September 2013. "Libertarians argued years later that Hoover's economics were statist, and that he belonged in the continuum of government and business collaboration that began around the turn of the century. I must agree with them."
- Kolko 2006, pp. 1–3.
- Painter 1995, p. 495.
- Kolko 1990.
- Gabriel Kolko (May 2003). "The age of unilateral war: Iraq, the United States and the end of the European coalition". nthposition.com. Retrieved 2 October 2013.
- Boyd 1999, p. 653.
- Boyd, Kelly (1999). Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing, Volume 1. London and Chicago, IL: Taylor & Francis.
- Bradley, Robert L.; Donway, Roger (2013). "Reconsidering Gabriel Kolko: A Half-Century Perspective". The Independent Review 17 (4): 561–576.
- Chandler, Alfred D.; Licht, Walter (2000). "The Triumph of Capitalism: Efficiency or Class War?". In Francis G. Couvares; Martha Saxton; Gerald N. Grob; George Athan Billias. Interpretations of American History: Patterns and Perspectives, Volume 2: From Reconstruction (7th ed.). New York, NY: The Free Press.
- Diggins, John P. (1977). "History in a Kolko's Nest". Reviews in American History 5 (4): 577–589. JSTOR 2701415.
- Fall, Bernard B. (1967). Last Reflections on a War. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company.
- Gaddis, John Lewis (1972). "Reviews of Books: The Limits of Power by Joyce and Gabriel Kolko". Pacific Historical Review 41 (4): 557–558. JSTOR 3638422.
- Hunt, David (1997). "Gabriel Kolko and the Mainstream on the United States and Vietnam". Science & Society 61 (3). pp. 402–408. JSTOR 40403647.
- Hurst, Steven (2005). Cold War US Foreign Policy: Key Perspectives. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-748-62079-1.
- Iggers, Georg G.; Wang, Q. Edward; Mukherjee, Supriya (2008). A Global History of Modern Historiography. Harlow: Longman.
- Immerman, Richard H. (1987). "Revisionism Revisited: The New Left Lives". Reviews in American History 15 (1): 134–139. JSTOR 2702232.
- Leffler, Melvyn P.; Westad, Odd Arne, eds. (2010a). The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume I: Origins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-83719-4.
- Leffler, Melvyn P.; Westad, Odd Arne, eds. (2010b). The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume II: Crisis and Détente. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-83720-0.
- Novick, Peter (1988). That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Painter, David S. (1995). "Book Reviews: Century of War: Politics, Conflict, and Society since 1914 by Gabriel Kolko". The Journal of American History 82 (2): 794–795. JSTOR 2082342.
- Rothbard, Murray (1965). "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty". Left and Right 1 (1): 4–22.
- Stromberg, Roland N. (1973). "The Kolkos and the Cold War". Reviews in American History 1 (4): 445–453. JSTOR 2701704.
- Stueck, William (1973). "Cold War Revisionism and the Origins of the Korean Conflict: The Kolko Thesis". Pacific Historical Review 42 (4): 537–560. JSTOR 3638137.
- Weaver, Paul H. (1988). The Suicidal Corporation. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
- 2007 interview with electricpolitics.com
- 2007 interview with Der Spiegel
- 2012 interview with Antiwar.com