I first encountered the writings of Gabriel Kolko, whose death has just been announced, as an undergraduate student at McGill University in 1969. His book, The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy 1943-1945, had a significant impact on my thinking, forcing me to re-evaluate my approach to international relations. I recall how, along with some of my fellow students, we embarked on a study of the revisionist historians associated with Kolko’s teacher, the brilliant William Appleman Williams.
I always appreciated Kolko’s spirit of intellectual independence, his ability to insulate himself from the conformist pressures in American academia. He was a genuine radical whose work questioned both the prejudices inherent in conservative discourse as well as on the left. His scathing condemnation of American foreign policy, like his condemnation of the crudity of Maoist rhetoric, stand as a testimony to his intellectual and political integrity. Unlike most radical scholars, Kolko also seemed to possess a populist streak, which meant he was sensitive to wider cultural developments in public life outside of the academy.
In recent years, he attempted to understand and assess the impact of the exhaustion of political ideology and the disintegration of socialism. His book, After Socialism (2006), reflected on a new world where intellectual and cultural life had become estranged from the promise of the Enlightenment. In that book, the disappointment of the previous seven decades appeared to dominate Kolko’s imagination.
Sadly in this pessimistic book, Kolko rounded on the ‘optimistic notions concocted in the nineteenth century’ and warned readers to be aware of the ‘limits of our knowledge’. His conservative conclusions about the legacy of the Enlightenment and the potential of humanity reflected well the zeitgeist of twenty-first-century Western society. We live in a hesitant, insecure world where the culture of limits dominates. That is why I prefer to remember the Gabriel Kolko whose genuine radicalism proved so infectious to a generation of youthful students making their way through the confusions of the 1960s.