‘A revolutionary career,’ noted Max Horkheimer somewhere, ‘does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.’
The passage comes to mind when comparing the obituaries for Alexander Cockburn, who died a few days ago, to the worldwide tributes for his one-time friend, Christopher Hitchens. Cockburn was the better writer, as Jack Shafer’s compilation of his work attests (read, in particular, his assessment of that insufferable idiot Thomas Friedman, which is even better than Matt Taibbi’s famous take-down). More importantly, he was right about the major questions of his day, often when it was unfashionable to be so. But his death hasn’t produced anything like the global sensation that greeted the demise of Hitchens, someone who was unerringly wrong about everything.
Cockburn’s death reminds me of two related points.
First, that there’s a difference between contrarianism as a literary pose and a genuine willingness to stand against the tide.
Magazine editors love contrarians. With the proliferation of opinion writing, any writing slightly askew from the mainstream (though never too much, and only so long as it avoids certain subjects) inevitably gets a run. Look at Slate, an entire publication founded on liberal arguments for conservative positions, its posts scientifically designed to rile readers sufficiently so that they share angry tweets with their friends. Controversy for the sake of controversy, arguments less designed to persuade than to boost traffic: it’s the path of the trolumnist, that hideous figure who looms so large in today’s newspapers.
Cockburn, on the other hand, seemed to actually care about he said. If he made a controversial argument, it was because he thought the argument mattered, not because he wanted to linkbait.
That’s connected to the second point. Cockburn reminds us that radicalism is never sustained by political theory alone.
After all, on paper, Cockburn might have seemed a much more likely candidate to turn renegade than Hitchens. Where Hitchens’ background was impeccably anti-Stalinist, Cockburn seemed a throwback to a different era, the Old Left of his father Claude. And when the Berlin Wall came down, an awful lot of old Communists simply reversed their political polarities. Cockburn might have been expected to do the same.
Instead, as we know, it was Hitchens who slipped his moorings, spectacularly transitioning from lauding Saddam Hussein as a great anti-imperialist to hailing Operation Desert Storm as a crusade against fascism.
How to explain that?
Cockburn himself told an anecdote about New Labour’s Ed Miliband.
The last time I saw Eddie he was an intern at the Nation in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Round the corner from the Nation when it was on Fifth and 13th st in Manhattan was Zinno’s restaurant and amid a pleasant lunch with JoAnWypijewski, my own intern Richie McKerrow and Eddie, I asked the future leader what I asked all interns as a matter of form, ‘Eddie, is your hate pure?’
It was a good way of assaying interns. The feisty ones would respond excitedly, ‘Yes, my hate is pure.’ I put the question to Eddie Miliband. He gaped at me in shock like Gussie Fink-Nottle watching one of his newts vanish down the plug hole in his bath. ‘I…I… don’t hate anyone, Alex,’ he stammered. It’s all you need to know. English capitalism will be safe in his hands, assuming he ever grasps the levers of what passes for power in 10 Downing Street. It is very hard to imagine him as prime minister. He’s forever Fink-Nottle to me.
Now, you can call the emotion expressed in that vignette ‘hatred’ but it might equally be discussed as a willingness to fight. It’s a recognition that politics actually matters, that one engages in polemics not to score points or sell books or rake in clicks but because there’s so much actually at stake.
In a similar vein, the British Communist leader Harry Politt explained the origins of his commitment by reminiscing about his mother’s poverty. ‘Every time she put her shawl round me before going to the mill on wet or very cold mornings,’ he said, ‘I swore that when I grew up I would pay the bosses out for the hardships she suffered. I hope I shall live to do it …’
That’s not a million miles from what Cockburn was talking about.
In Hitchens’ memoirs, by contrast, there’s an openly expressed desire, even during his activist days, to be admired, even – or perhaps especially – by the powerful. Keeping ‘two sets of books’, he called it, and you can see how the habit made the immense theoretical gulf from ‘socialism from below’ to cruise missile liberalism rather easier to bridge.
Which is not to say that ideas don’t matter, for of course they do. There were aspects of Cockburn’s politics that I thought were pretty terrible, from his scepticism on climate change to his willingness to give a platform to dubious characters from the isolationist Right.
But he was a fine writer who remained a radical long after many of his contemporaries subsided into dreary respectability. If that was the result of the purity of hatred, one can only wish for more of it.