I was saddened to read of the recent death of prominent historian Gabriel Kolko. He suffered from an incurable neurological disease and relocated to the Netherlands. He then took advantage of that nation’s legal euthanasia option and died in Amsterdam on May 19.
When I was an undergraduate, I read and found immensely provocative Kolko’s “The Triumph of Conservatism: A Reinterpretation of American History, 1900-1916” (1963). Kolko argued in the book that big businesses of the early twentieth century actually wanted the federal government to regulate them in order to avoid more restrictive legislation from state legislatures. Self-styled “Progressive” reformers, in Kolko’s interpretation, were wolves in sheep’s clothing. They worked in sneaky ways to preserve corporate power and to short-circuit efforts to rein in exploitative corporate profit-seeking.
In the later stages of his career, Kolko turned increasingly to American war-making and foreign policy, and his works included: “The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-45” (1968), “The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-54” (1972), and “Anatomy of War: The United States, Vietnam, and the Modern Historical Experience” (1985). In these works and others, Kolko argued that American foreign policy was less about maintaining peace and promoting democracy and more about protecting corporate interests and suppressing leftist politicians and movements.
His fellow historians did not rank Kolko among the greatest in their discipline, but I credit him with helping us more clearly characterize and understand certain stopping points on the American political spectrum. To wit, while the Democratic Party and liberals are of course to the left of the Republican Party and conservatives, the Democratic Party and liberals are not in any important sense “leftist.” The Democratic Party and certainly President Obama are centrist and routinely willing to collaborate with corporate interests, both domestically and in international affairs. Gabriel Kolko reminded us of the conservative inclinations of American liberals and reminded us that an edgier, extremely valuable political position exists to the left of liberalism.