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In Memoriam, Gabriel Kolko

I called Gaby Friday morning (May 16), we chatted about old times, picketing on Boston Common in front of the State House on Friday afternoons, against nuclear testing and the absurd effort to move the state capitol to Framingham in the bedlam of an attack, he on a soap box, we marching around him, FBI informants taking our pictures as we passed, and then, on Saturday mornings, in Harvard Square, picketing in front of Woolworth’s for lunch counter desegregation in the South, this in the period about 1957-61. As we talked, my wife Nancy was playing a Bach prelude and fugue in the living room, and I brought the phone in so Gaby could listen, Gaby who loved Bach (probably as much if not more than he loved Marx and Trotsky) and seemed transfixed, finally blurting out, “Bach was the greatest composer that ever lived.”

That was Gaby, his recordings, his closeness to his wife Joyce, romantically, intellectually, politically inseparable. When Joyce died, Gaby’s world darkened. And he had also a degenerative neurological disorder that was becoming progressively worse that would ultimately attack the brain. This was the Gaby of the last several years, after Joyce’s death pretty much alone in Amsterdam, not what I knew of my friend (proud to consider him that, even through long lapses of our not seeing each other—far too long), a veritable Man Mountain of protest against and criticism of American ruling circles, most especially intervention, war, capitalist expansion, covert operations, crimes against humanity, at one point incisively focused on Vietnam, but even then, always thinking, shared by Joyce, of the global context of US operations and policy. (Although we were impressed by Harvard, not having been the prep school route, and all that it entailed, Gaby had Kissinger’s number from the start, and the fledgling policy wonks anxious to prove their mettle as Strangelovians.)

I honestly have not kept up with all of his writings. He came by his Man Mountain qualities through a prodigious capacity for work and the absence of fear in going where his convictions and the evidence led him, leaving behind a body of writings, unified in development as he peeled away layer after layer of American power, inequality, foreign aggression, and yes, idiocy as well as criminality and mendacity at the top. His first book, Wealth and Power in America, did far more than Michael Harrington’s sudden “discovery” of poverty to reveal the US’s gross maldistribution of wealth, a topic held in suspension for some time since Progressivism and TNEC studies in the New Deal—a real breakthrough integrating bare statistics with radical analysis and interpretation. This was followed by The Triumph of Conservatism, perhaps my favorite, which defined and gave historical flesh and bones to the all-important framework of government-business interpenetration. Monopoly capital was significantly advanced via public policy, government protection not only of the business order, but the giant firms and banks, specifically by the elimination of competition, allowing business self-regulation through government auspices to favor their consolidation, writing their own ground rules in the process. Thus Gaby’s damning indictment of Theodore Roosevelt as a “trust buster,” and instead, by means of the Bureau of Corporations, the staunch friend of the House of Morgan. (TR incidentally could and did combine the consolidated economic base with the Battleship Navy, to strike out as a formidable world power.) Gaby’s discussion of the Federal Reserve System, under Woodrow Wilson, laid out how the USG served to rationalize (in Max Weber’s sense) the banking industry, the stabilization of financial power confirming US capitalism as a structure of concentrated wealth ever desirous of further economic expansion.

Then, of course, the foreign-policy studies, whether instinctively, I do not know, for we never discussed it, but however working his mental processes, Gaby was led from the domestic/internal foundations of American capitalism to its foreign complement—and soon obsession. I’m not sure whether he and Joyce used the phrase “global hegemony,” at least until after 1970, but his understanding of policy-direction was razor sharp, so much so that in The Politics of War, a magnificent volume on World War II, which, unlike practically all other historical works of the conflict, went into the nuts-and-bolts of American Empire as actually evolving through the course of the war itself—and, as planning looked ahead to the postwar period, at the expense of the Allies (as dismembering the British Empire for purposes of achieving American trade and investment opportunities). In a way, Bretton Woods was as important to FDR as Yalta, Gaby placing FDR’s own capitalistic realpolitik into play (and insufficiently followed through by others). This was followed by The Limits of Power, with Joyce, which, among other things, worked through the intricacies of currency-and-trade domination on a world basis.

There is much more, his writings on Vietnam in particular, but let me stop this account with a Kolko specialty: the short, tight analysis covering a huge accumulation of evidence, words if not chiseled in stone then at least the pounding that came from the early days on the soapbox. I have in mind, The Roots of American Foreign Policy, which has for its dedication what I think best reveals Gaby’s own heart and mind:

To the victims
Those who resist,
And to the future!

The scholar and activist, yes, but the man also—his devotion to Joyce, their strength in solidarity with each other, in the face of the usual, instead of being celebrated for his work, spiteful denigration by academics on-the-make; his love of Bach, and baroque music in general (also early music); and as we talked on the phone last Friday, when I told him about the Gilmore Piano Festival in Kalamazoo weeks ago, he said, “Oh, yes, Michigan. Norm, did you ever search for the morel mushrooms, they’re famous in Michigan.” Gaby, the mycophile. We all shall miss you terribly, rest in peace.

Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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Norman Pollack Ph.D. Harvard, Guggenheim Fellow, early writings on American Populism as a radical movement, prof., activist.. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at pollackn@msu.edu.

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