"The first rule of journalism: to confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it."-Alexander Cockburn
It is really hard to believe it will be five years since the unfortunate passing of Alexander Cockburn, one of the most infamous radical journalists of his generation, after a two year long battle with cancer in July 2012.
I have a bizarre hate/respect relationship with Alexander Cockburn, editor and co-founder of Counterpunch and former columnist at Village Voice and The Nation. When I became politically conscious as a blooming 15 year old; interested in politics, especially radical politics, I regularly read, almost religiously, Cockburn's articles on the Counterpunch website.
For a young and impressionable person like me, reading Cockburn was truly a wonder and a delight. He made me repeatedly think to myself when reading his articles, with my dictionary at hand: "I want to write like that". He was initially one of my inspirations because he was never afraid to tell it like it is on issues such as capitalism, imperialism, liberal cowardice and hypocrisy, the war on drugs, the growth of the national security state and American vanity, even if it meant upsetting people.
You see, Cockburn wasn't one of those 'serious' commentators who occupy the centre of respectable American political commentary. Serious commentators don't make too big a fuss about class. It’s too divisive and ideological. Nor do they indulge in careless talk about American "imperialism" - you know that far left concoction. That is just gross and irresponsible. Sure, America makes mistakes and blunders abroad, sometimes murderous ones, but always with good intentions in its noble heart.
Cockburn truly did not give a damn about being 'politically correct' or towing the conventional line, if this meant offending people then so be it. He was ruthless, uncompromising and extremely witty in his criticism of the establishment with a vocabulary and fluency that was unrivalled, perhaps, dare I utter, almost immaculate.
To give you an example:
"Tedium in a pundit is inevitable and, in its own way, soothing. In the days of C L Sulzberger, [Thomas] Friedman's remote predecessor on the "foreign affairs" beat on the Times' op-ed page, I used to look forward to C L's narcotic musings as eagerly as Coleridge to his opium pipe. As I wrote once years ago, C L was the summation, the Platonic ideal of what foreign commentary is all about, namely to fire volley after volley of cliché into the densely packed prejudices of his readers. He never deviated into paradox, never shunned the obvious when he had a chance to grapple with it. His work was a constant affirmation of received beliefs.
"But Sulzberger had the graces of an older world, the decorum of the chancery or the embassy dinner. He slipped over the side quietly one day and was gone. I miss him, and sometimes, nodding over the Times op-ed with eyes half closed, I fancy I can hear him still."
Then he hilariously pawns New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman:
"[Thomas] Friedman's is an industrial, implacable noise, like having a generator running under the next table in a restaurant. The only sensible thing to do is leave."
To give you some more examples of him laying into pundits with his trademark ferocious and entertaining turn of phrase. In a 2003 article exposing the falsehoods Jeffrey Goldberg (now editor of The Atlantic) produced as part of the justifications for the Iraq war, he refers to David Remnick of The New Yorker as a "third-tier talent who has always got ahead by singing the correct career-enhancing tunes". Or for instance, referring to Christopher Hitchens as "Hitcheypoo". In his obituary to Hitchens he snipes at him for "trumpeting about Islamo-Fascism like a Cheltenham colonel in one of those ancient Punch cartoons" - that one weirdly gets me every time. There is a lot of this muck racking where that came from with Cockburn.
The main problem of being an oppositionist who lives in the West and other relatively free, democratic and prosperous countries, has not been political repression, though we should always be vigilant for attempts by the state to violate our liberties, or getting fired from a university or a media outlet for having unpopular ideas that go against the prevailing ideology of that institution. The main problem has been refusing to surrender your mind to the soft yet very powerful pressure of the intellectual and ideological orthodoxy of the ruling class. It is so easy to get that cushy, comfortable job in academia or in the mainstream press where all you do is just play along, writing page after page of mindless clichés and consensus ridden drivel that has little relevance to what is actually going on in the world.
To his credit, Cockburn never gave into this pressure, and always remained a radical even when it became fashionable make your peace with the status quo. He always put his ideas on the line, and was unrepentant in doing so. I'll admit that in my own makeshift and rather pathetic fashion I have tried to write like him. Though I don't think I could quite match his elite education at Oxford, but at least I am encouraged by his example to be firm in your beliefs, speak your mind and as he would always say "keep your hatred pure".
Inevitably when Alexander Cockburn is discussed, comparisons with Christopher Hitchens will almost always be brought up. For good reason. They were in some ways similar. Both were of the 1960s British New Left (Cockburn was Anglo-Irish, Hitchens was English) who made the journey across the pond for pastures new in America. Both were extremely articulate and witty. Both were among the most fearless and brilliant radical writers of their generation. Both were even close friends, for a time.
However, they had their obvious differences. Hitchens always held a very high opinion of George Orwell, while Cockburn despised Orwell who he thought was a snitch and a right wing thug. Hitchens hated Mother Teresa, while Cockburn oddly had a soft spot for her. Cockburn never took seriously Hitchens' later polemics against religion, he felt the argument over religion was settled in the 18th century and it was of little use to keep banging on about what in his view were relatively innocuous beliefs. Hitchens always had that liberal interventionist streak in him even before he 'left the left' after 9/11, Cockburn was an absolute refusenik on liberal interventionism- even in its "humanitarian" forms- which he regarded as the litmus test for whether you were a true radical or just another pathetic liberal apologist for empire.
I may be at risk of provoking the ire of some Hitchens fans but in my opinion Cockburn was a better writer, even if marginally (I'm talking about style not necessarily the content of their views). Both men were living and breathing thesauruses and were extremely well read which one could easily tell if you read their works. But Cockburn understood something that Hitchens didn't: that sometimes less is more. A sneaky quote from Balzac or Trollope, or a sly reference to Conrad, would do for Cockburn, while Hitchens at times tried too much to show off how much a literary officiando he was. Which is why reading Hitchens sometimes felt like you were having your mouth stuffed with chocolate creams. We all love chocolate creams, but we all feel a little sick if you have too much.
Nevertheless, despite all my praise for Cockburn for his intellect, wit and fearless contrarianism, he had some tremendous failings. Failings that have gravely dampened my view of him. To give you a few: his flirtations with the militia movement and the paleocon right, his climate change denialism, his lack lustre attitude towards anti-Semitism and his crypto Stalinism, best demonstrated by his soft apologia for the Soviet Union.
Take a look at his comments cheering the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in 1980:
"We all have to go one day, but pray God let it not be over Afghanistan. An unspeakable country filled with unspeakable people, sheepshaggers and smugglers, who have furnished in their leisure hours some of the worst arts and crafts ever to penetrate the occidental world. I yield to none in my sympathy to those prostrate beneath the Russian jackboot, but if ever a country deserved rape its Afghanistan."
This is just unconscionable. It’s indefensible, disgusting and racist. There is a slight irony in him condemning Hitchens for being a "flag waver" and "cheerleader of empire" when Cockburn was very euphoric about Soviet imperialism in Afghanistan. Though I will say, as wrong as Hitchens was about Iraq (and he was very wrong, dare I say criminally so), I don't think he would've ever thought, let alone pen something as vile and inhuman as this in regards to Iraq.
Those comments have always troubled me but they, combined with his petty and rather tiresome sniping of Orwell, republishing his father, Claud Cockburn, Stalinoid lies about the Spanish civil war on Counterpunch and his squalid attempts to sanitise Stalin's crimes made things very clear to me where he stood on the question of the Soviet empire. I guess I should've paid more attention.
Of course, he was no plain vanilla Stalinist. He was not a full on supporter of the Soviet Union, as he recognised its obvious deficiencies. But he was never that opposed to it either. In Cockburn's mind the Soviet Union was an imperfect but dearly missed counter hegemonic power to American hegemony and its global capitalist form that still despite its ghastly flaws had admirable achievements.
As he writes in his 1996 book The Golden Age is in Us:
“The Soviet Union defeated Hitler and fascism. Without it, the Cuban Revolution would never have survived, nor the Vietnamese. In the post-war years it was the counterweight to US imperialism and the terminal savageries of the old European colonial powers. It gave support to any country trying to follow an independent line. Without it, just such a relatively independent country as India could instead have taken a far more rightward course. Despite Stalin’s suggestion to Mao that he and his comrades settle for only half a country, the Chinese Revolution probably would not have survived either."
This is such a conservative, indeed reactionary, view to hold of the Soviet Union, reminiscing with nostalgia about its various achievements. Nevertheless, it’s the typical logic of the fellow traveller.
William Keach gives a good critique of this view:
"Every sentence of this paragraph belies Cockburn’s political intelligence and represents a barrier to his asking the most important political questions. In what sense had either the Cuban or the Vietnamese revolutions survived by 1991? Was the Soviet Union a ‘counterweight to US imperialism’ or a rival imperialist power in its own right, imposing its own regimes of repression? Did the Soviet Union encourage or block the development of genuine socialist politics in India? Caught up in the terminal crisis of Stalinist Russia, and obviously appalled by a world increasingly dominated by US style market capitalism, Cockburn retreats to a backward looking defence of mythical Russian accomplishments."
He goes on:
"Cockburn clearly felt in August of 1991 that the world had entered the era of ‘post-communism’. Just where this left him politically is indicated by his quoting a from Vietnamese intellectual Nguyen Khac Vien: ‘If a world front of capital is being founded, its counterweight, the democratic popular front on a world scale, is also in formation’. This is where Cockburn was left by the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a nebulous global popular frontism."
This "nebulous popular frontism" was probably why Cockburn entered into 'coalition building' (his phrase) with paleo-libertarians in opposing the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have always found very problematic that many sections of the anti-war and anti-imperialist left enter into various alliances of convenience with all sorts of reactionary groupings just for the sake of opposing American power.
One could accuse me of ideological tribalism on this point but the fact is I have very different reasons in opposing American imperialism to a paleo-libertarian. They oppose American imperialism from an 'America first' isolationist perspective, the ultimate form of conservatism, desiring America retreat from the world to become a 'shining city on the hill'. While a leftist ought to oppose American imperialism (or any other form of imperialism for that matter) from an internationalist perspective. The only anti-imperialism that is worth anything is one that is progressive and internationalist, not one that is reactionary and provincial.
One problems with this reactionary, narrow and doctrinal form of "anti-imperialism" is that it has eroded the politics of solidarity and doesn't say much about the struggle for democracy. Which is why Cockburn was more concerned about defending 'Yugoslavia' from intervention yet was ambivalent towards the Bosnian and Kosovar victims of Milosevic, who in his eyes barely existed. Moreover, this is why he poured scorn on the Libyan and Syrian revolutions in their early days, defaming them as basically Islamist insurgencies with Western patronage. In the end, his version of 'solidarity' was objectively protecting oppressive governments rather than helping oppressed peoples.
Being a radical, an oppositionist, insisting on thinking for yourself (at least aspiring to those things), will mean confronting the views of those who you admire, admitting to yourself that they are flawed creatures, just like you. Dropping the rose tinted view, you eventually realise that what may have been a difference of opinion was actually a difference of principle.
When dealing with polarising figures like Cockburn, it is very easy to say that you can separate out a writers virtues and vices, to say that he was good on this, bad on that, and this and that have nothing to do with each other. This is rarely true about any writer, but it was absolutely not true about Cockburn, whose insights and blindspots were so coalesced with one another that he wouldn't be the same person if you tried to make that distinction. So on the one hand he was an entertaining polemicist and a fierce critic of empire and inequality, on the other hand he was a bloody Stalinist.
I realise much of the liberal reaction to Cockburn's death in 2012 could be summed up as "good riddance". This is not surprising given Cockburn's intense hatred for liberals, so much so that he even wrote some columns for The Wall Street Journal - the editors managed to find a leftist who hated liberals and liberalism as much as they did.
However, for all my disagreements with him, for all his low points and in spite of the fact that he was essentially neo-Stalinist scum, I don't think he is completely worthless. Many of his articles, whether on The Nation or even on Counterpunch are still very agreeable and very entertaining with his trademark humour and wit. And I still can't help but see him as an inspiration, though more in style than in actual content, as someone who was unafraid to go against any party line. Even when he was frustratingly wrong on issues like climate change, I quietly respected the fact that he had the courage of his conviction and really did not give a shit that he was in a minority of one, against the entire left. With so much groupthink on the left, we need people who will not be afraid to go against the grain and scrutinize the smelly little orthodoxies that infest so much of the left.
It's not an easy task, to adopt a two-eyed approach and simultaneously critique the existing order and the failings of your own side. You'll find that you may feel politically out of place, but the task is still necessary for those with an independent mind, who still believe in the fruits of justice, enlightenment and progress.
Alexander Cockburn tried to sincerely undertake this task. But the problem was he went after some of the wrong dogmas, which weren't actually dogmas, and played a part in erecting a few dogmas himself. Thus, my reaction to him not being with us anymore is not "good riddance" but "what a waste".
This excellent blog by BobFromBrockley on Cockburn's family background and his ideological triangulations
Touching tribute to him by his niece, Olivia Wilde (yes that Olivia Wilde), celebrating his life.
A gathering at the Frontline club in London from 2013, among the panelists his brother, Patrick Cockburn, remembering Alexander's life and celebrating his achievements.