Vale Alexander Cockburn

‘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.


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Alex got climate change right, I would have thought. The troublewith his politics though, is it shows a naive credulity when it comes to power, which is inevitably abused, no matter what side of the political spectrum happens to be wielding it at any particular time. And Alex seemed like a big govt apologist, which is no more than bellringing for totalitarianism.

  2. The purity of hatred… May it one day be harnessed to revolutionary political power and the tactics of revolution.
    I agreed with Alexander in many respects. The target of his hatred seemed indeed to have been the exploiting system we’re currently experiencing, namely, imperialist capitalism. I rarely questioned the legitimacy and morality of his claims. Except in the case of Afghanistan… In his January 21, 1980, “Press Clips” column for the Village Voice, he wrote on the presence of the Soviet Union in Afhanistan: “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 it’s Afghanistan. Nothing but mountains filled with barbarous ethnics with views as medieval as their muskets, and unspeakable cruel too.”
    I never thought of the Soviet Union and the United States as moral equivalents, as two evil imperialist powers. If I think of the structures of power, on the economic, social, political, military and cultural levels, I’d say that only the United States was a truly imperialist power, and the Soviet Union challenged it (not enough, unfortunately). But I never thought Afghanistan deserved to be discredited the way Alexander did. Although I dislike the medievalism of some Afghans, and although I myself don’t know much about all the built-in national traits of Afghanistan, or about its arts and crafts’ reputation, I wonder if they really deserved that kind of evil fame Alexander wrote about. Last year in Marseille I bought some vintage carpets handwoven in Afghanistan in the Eighties which I thought were great… I didn’t trust Alexander’s representation of Afghanistan in the Eighties. It didn’t suit a humanist anti-imperialist perspective. And if there ever were countries that needed rape, they were perhaps the white-ruled nations then (and now) at the forefront of modern enterprise of capitalist imperialism. They needed(and still need) to collapse, and become normal countries, and this way there would be no more imperialism and no more collaborators of imperialism.

    And Jeff, I agree with you regarding the isolationist Right. Usually the isolationist Right I know (here in Europe) gives priority to national interest over internationalist anti-imperialism. And it attempts to preserve those unequal power relations (class relations) that would constitute a repressive system of social relations. Socialism is about transforming power relations in a way the isolationist Right may not really want to see them transformed.

  3. Claud Cockburn was also an excellent writer. I especially loved his book “Bestsellers,” which analysed the best selling popular novels of the Edwardian era and how they tapped into various imperial anxieties. (His chapter on “The Blue Lagoon” was a minor masterpiece.)
    I think Alex Cockburn was braver than Hitchens in the fact that he kept quiet about his illness — instead of Hitchens who begged Christians not to pray for him, in a silly display of histrionics.

    1. I was thinking the same thing re the completely different ways Hitchens and Cockburn dealt with cancer; and in hindsight it speaks volumes about who they were as individuals. I used to love Hitchens, grew to despise him more and more and wondered how the hell I was ever suckered in by the guy. I was glad he died: good fucking riddance. I also came to appreciate Cockburn as the much more reliable source who was also an excellent writer, minus the ridiculous flair of Hitchens’ writing.

      As for Claud Cockburn, he was working rather openly for the Soviet Union, was aggressively engaged in spreading lies about his political enemies, and participated in the crushing of the Spanish/anarchist revolution in Spain. Not exactly a friend of the authentic left.

  4. The only time Hitchens really impressed me was his defense of Trotsky against the vile, faux-historian Robert Service. Yet, one cannot forgive him for lending academic credibility the brutal Bush regime’s push to destabilize the middle east.

  5. Man, I’ve never been here before and I like your article, but your comments section is creepy. Global warming denialist libertarians and anarcho-whatsits.

  6. Alex seemed far too smart to believe the overwhelming evidence of catastrophic human overpopulation is merely a sinister fascist myth.

    But he wasn’t.

    He was all for unlimited population growth (particularly immigration-fueled US population growth) even as he himself chose to live far from it. From his rural throne he slandered honest conservationists as “neo-Malthusians.”

    In spite of that I liked the guy.

  7. Put me down a HUGE fan of Cockburn. He was right about so much and he wrote beautifully. Read him for years.

    But he really wandered around the bend on climate change. The problem with technological and scientific illiterates is that they don’t understand when their worldview is just irrelevant. Poor Cockburn thought that climate change was a political subject. Hard to imagine a bigger category error.

    But I kept reading him because everyone must be forgiven for being a drooling moron on at least one subject. I no longer took him seriously on any subject that includes science and technology, however.

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