A radical for all seasons

Jim Creegan takes a look at the political life of Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012

In an American left comprised not of parties and mass organisations with genuine heft, but mainly of journalists and professors with nothing but their own opinions, poised at various points along an axis between reformism and a radicalism of uncertain contours, Alexander Cockburn was perhaps the outstanding figure. He died on July 21 in Germany, where his daughter lived, after a two-year illness with cancer.

For the last few decades, Cockburn made his home in northern California, and from 1996 on was, with Jeffrey St Clair, co-editor of Counterpunch, a daily online magazine that served as a flagship for those who refused to concede a monopoly of left politics to the ‘progressive’ wing of the Democratic Party. He also wrote a regular column, ‘Beat the devil’, in the country’s premier left-liberal weekly, The Nation. Cockburn was 71. According to St Clair, he deliberately decided not to turn his illness and death into a media event, as had his former friend and colleague, Christopher Hitchens, who predeceased him by about six months. His cancer was kept secret from all but his family and closest friends, and news of his death therefore came as a shock to the many who were still reading his columns, turned out with workmanlike dedication during the last weeks of his life.

Most of us who have been reading those columns for decades would probably agree that his sharpest writing did not appear during his decidedly more laid-back Counterpunch years, but during a politically charged stint at New York’s leading ‘alternative’ weekly newspaper, The Village Voice, from 1973 to 1984. (I worked as a clerk there for part of this time, but was not personally acquainted with Cockburn.) These years encompassed the onset of neoliberal policies at home and the second cold war abroad - the great right turn in American and world politics.

But Alex was not for turning. Having cut his pre-American political teeth on the editorial board of New Left Review, he was an anomaly among a US press corps then squirming to adjust itself to the changing mood. His column of media criticism, ‘Pressclips’, the first of its kind, soon became famous for savage barbs directed at the pretentions, hypocrisies, evasions and unspoken class bias of the journalistic establishment, including his own colleagues and superiors at the Voice. The rightward-drifting rebels of the 60s, suddenly discovering the virtues of American democracy and free enterprise, and fast evolving from self-styled radicals into social democrats or neoconservatives, frequently found themselves on the receiving end of Cockburn’s dreaded polemical razor.

He was an intrepid foe of the anti-Soviet fever then being whipped up under Carter and Reagan. He shed no tears over the Soviet Union’s armed intervention to defend Afghanistan’s reformist junta from the obscurantist wrath of American-backed mullahs and warlords. And he set the left-reformist firmament agog when he expressed sympathy for the Spartacist League’s call for military victory to leftwing guerrillas in El Salvador, in opposition to official proposals from the FMLN liberation front for a negotiated settlement with the ruling death-squad junta, dutifully echoed by the organisation’s US supporters.

Cockburn’s willingness to take provocative positions, combined with a literary bravura perhaps unrivalled in American journalism at the time, earned him the most enthusiastic readership - as well as the highest salary - of any writer at the Voice. His success as a media phenomenon encouraged a host of British journalists - most with politics far to the right of his - to follow him across the Atlantic, where they found their phrase-turning skills at a premium in a linguistically-challenged land, and basked in the childlike awe of audiences for their plummy accents. Christopher Hitchens, who moved sharply to the right after 9/11, was the most famous of those who followed in Cockburn’s footsteps.

Cockburn’s journalistic virtuosity, as well as his ability to swim against the tide, ran in the family. His father, Claud, whom Alex worshipped, was himself a famous journalistic apostate, as well as the patriarch of an entire brood of professional newsmongers, including Alex’s two younger brothers, Patrick and Andrew, as well as his nieces, Laura and Stephanie Flanders. Disowned by his aristocratic Scottish clan after joining the Communist Party in the 1930s, Claud was the correspondent for the Daily Worker during the Spanish civil war, and later went on to found his own journal, The Week, which closely adhered to the party line. Alex’s mother, Patricia, née Arbuthnot, was likewise cast out by the Anglo-Irish gentry into which she was born for the sin of marrying Claud.

From his parents Alex no doubt imbibed not only leftwing politics, but a patrician elegance that made many a co-worker green with envy. Cockburn’s class background probably also gave him a belief in his ability to act without fear of consequences - a hubristic strain that figured significantly in the events surrounding the ultimate loss of his most prominent media platform.

Burnt fingers

The media moguls of the time - including Rupert Murdoch, who then owned the Village Voice (but did not generally interfere with its editorial contents) - were willing to put up with a degree of irreverence in the interest of lively journalism conducive to newsstand sales.

But their tolerance had limits. It was, in the end, Cockburn’s violation of the ultimate taboo of American politics - exposure of Israeli crimes against the Palestinians - that proved the last straw for New York’s heavily Zionist media establishment and local ruling class. Cockburn’s unsparing reportage of Israel’s backing for the Christian militias that carried out the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon not only rattled the pro-Israel stalwarts in the mainstream press, but also infuriated supposedly radical Village Voice writers like Jack Newfield, Ellen Willis and Nat Hentoff - ardent Zionists all. Accusations of anti-Semitism, which were to dog Cockburn to the end of his life, flew thick and fast. Finally, another ‘alternative’ paper, The Boston Phoenix, handed his enemies the pretext they were looking for.

In January 1984, a writer who described himself as a ‘liberal Zionist’, revealed in the Phoenix that Cockburn had two years earlier accepted a $10,000 grant from a group called the Institute for Arab Studies, ostensibly for travel and research for a book on the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The grant was a matter of public record, and the foundation’s scholarly credentials were impeccable. (One of its board members was Edward Said.) But Cockburn had failed to tell his editor, David Schneiderman (also of Zionist sympathies), about the grant, and the book never materialised. Cockburn’s belated offer to return the $10,000 did not suffice to assuage Schneiderman’s professed concern about the possible “appearance of impropriety” that the grant may have created. Cockburn was suspended indefinitely from the paper without pay.

Cash incentives like the one Cockburn received are not at all uncommon in the world of US journalism. Rightwing and Zionist foundations routinely shower favoured writers with emoluments of various kinds, often demanding little or nothing in return. Schneiderman could easily have followed the example of the Wall Street Journal, for whom Cockburn wrote a monthly column as the paper’s token left, in dismissing the whole affair as a tempest in a teapot. But Cockburn had given his editor a credible journalistic excuse for choosing not to do so. As he wrote at the time, “… he who gives his enemies avoidable cause for rejoicing is foolish … [and] you can certainly say I was foolish in not foreseeing the consequences” (Village Voice January 24 1984).

New departure

Although Schneiderman offered to take him back at the Voice a few weeks later, Cockburn was by then too embittered to accept. He had also received an offer to write a weekly column at the same pay from Victor Navasky, then editor of The Nation. Having written extensively on the McCarthy period, Navasky had developed a healthy aversion to rightwing witch-hunts. But, though Cockburn did start writing for The Nation (his last column appeared in May of this year), and also turned out a regular pieces for the Voice’s main competitor, The New York Press, for a few years, these far less visible perches were not enough to keep him in a city now increasingly dominated by rightwing neoconservative voices, from a particularly unctuous mayor named Edward Koch to venom-spewing radio and television commentators.

So Alex took yet another leaf from the book of his father, who, amid dimming prospects for leftwing journalists in post-war Britain, set out to make a new life for himself near the estate of his wife’s family (with whom his wife had by then been reconciled) in Youghal, County Cork, where Alex and his brothers came of age. Confronted with his own setbacks, Alex eventually abandoned the eastern seaboard of the US for the more hospitable precincts of northern California’s Humbolt County, involuntarily relinquishing his New York star status, but not his passion for journalism or his oppositional stance.

Cockburn learned through his New York experience that any seriously critical attitude toward American society and politics has no place in the media mainstream, even in an ostensibly alternative weekly like the Village Voice, but must rather take refuge in the margins. Cockburn, however, soon discovered these margins to be agreeably capacious.

There are in the US sprawling networks of academics, freelance journalists, local activists, rank-and-file trade union militants, environmentalists, independent film producers, animal rights people, leftover radicals from the 60s and 70s, anarchist-libertarians and other marginal types whose politics can be described as a series of inclinations, as opposed to any sharply defined views or organisational loyalties. The milieu is, generally speaking, middle class and left-tending.

But, like any broad social layer, it contains a vaguely defined right, left and centre. Its more moderate elements shade off into the NGO world and the left fringes of the Democratic Party. The leading spokespersons for this wing gravitate toward one of the country’s two leading alternative media outlets: Democracy Now!, a syndicated radio and television news show broadcast from New York City by its founder, Amy Goodman. On the other hand, the opinions of the harder, more consistently anti-liberal and anti-Democratic Party currents, for whom San Francisco and points north have become something of a refuge, tend to find readier expression in the columns of Counterpunch, the other main rebel-media pillar (though these two venues are by no means mutually opposed poles, but overlapping circles with different centres).

Counterpunch contains the work of regular contributors and well known left personalities, but it also includes contributors without a public name, and many young people breaking into journalism for the first time - two categories of writers whose work could not otherwise easily see the light of the computer screen. All of these writers are unpaid, and choose their own topics. The webzine is widely regarded as the major journalistic reference point and clearing house for far-left opinion. It is Counterpunch, rather than his columns in The Nation, that Cockburn justly considered the principal achievement of his later life.

Later views

Other obituaries have observed that Cockburn’s tone and politics changed noticeably since his halcyon days at the Village Voice. And it is true that his style in later years was certainly more observational than before, evincing less of the old jugular-piercing instinct. Perhaps this was the result of both advancing age and years spent in a west-coast social climate far mellower than the hypercharged New York scene, with its unremitting political and literary buzz, which Cockburn thrived on during his years as an east-coast enfant terrible.

As for Cockburn’s politics, a certain evolution was clearly discernible. Cockburn never based his politics on a broad theoretical propositions, always expressing whatever general outlook he possessed through his observations and analyses of specific events and personalities. And, although no-one ever had much difficulty discerning what he was against, it was never completely obvious what he was for in terms of big political and social objectives. Was he a reformist or the diehard Marxist that most of his more mainstream colleagues took him for? How did his support for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Democratic presidential bid square with his call for military victory to Salvadoran guerrillas? Such inconsistencies often puzzled his readers. Yet, occasional lapses in the direction of liberalism aside, it can be said that most of the views he expressed during the 70s and 80s were broadly in line with the brand of Marxism he inherited from his father and/or the British new left.

The same cannot be said about many of his more recent positions. The one that rankled his readership the most - denial of human-caused climate change - was considered sheer insanity by nearly all scientifically informed critics. But this can perhaps be put down to an ingrained contrarianism, which sometimes took bizarre forms.

More politically consequential was an anarcho-libertarian streak that widened as the years went on. He recently remarked several times that Bakunin made more sense to him than Marx. He also stated at least once that Lenin aimed to establish a dictatorship of the intelligentsia rather than the proletariat - a view identical to that of his friend, Noam Chomsky, who has on several occasions revealed himself to be seriously misinformed about Russian revolutionary history, despite deep knowledge about other subjects.

Cockburn also expressed altered views on the subject of social class. In one Counterpunch piece, he sought to distance himself from Marxism’s contention that the proletariat, rather than the petty bourgeoisie, is the major force for social change. This pronouncement was in line with certain sympathies Cockburn had long expressed for the middle class lunatics of the radical right - the militia movement, advocates of the right of juries to overturn federal laws, and the Tea Party. To be sure, he rejected the retrograde social and political views of these groups, as well as the outlandish conspiracy theories that flourished in their midst (and in much of the left besides). But he seemed to believe (wrongly, in my opinion) that their anti-statism and individualism bespoke a rebellious impulse that could possibly be turned to the advantage of the left, given the correct approach.

Maybe Cockburn’s rightward glances represented an overreaction to the paternalistic liberalism of the eastern liberal ascendancy, which had dealt him a humiliating blow. But, more profoundly, his affinities for the middle class probably represented a late-life realisation of what he had always really been, earlier Marxist vocabulary notwithstanding: a petty bourgeois radical giving eloquent expression to the sentiments of what, when all is said and done, remains an overwhelmingly petty bourgeois American left.

But, petty bourgeois or not, Cockburn remained an unbending radical to the end of his days, choosing, in marked contrast to his former disciple, Christopher Hitchens, to follow his own lights rather than making the compromises demanded to remain in the limelight of respectable punditry. Whatever positions he took were the result of his own thinking, free of careerist calculation.

Upon the passing of one respectable pundit, a prominent New York Times columnist and purveyor of conventional Washington wisdom named James Reston, Alex acerbically remarked that the world would be the same without him. At least among those of a leftwing generation that took courage from his resistance to conformist pressure that few could withstand, nothing like that will be said of Alexander Cockburn.