The death of Alexander Cockburn, columnist for the Nation and author of many books, is an irreplaceable loss not only personally, for those who knew him, but for the broad “progressive” movement, where his populist brand of anarcho-syndicalism — the leftist equivalent of “crunchy conservatism” — set him apart from the bullhorn-shouters and sloganeering ideologues of the haute cuisine Left. His passing, after a two-year battle against cancer, marks nearly the end of what remained vital and interesting about the American left in this country. There is simply no one even remotely like him. As Jesse Walker described his first encounter with Cockburn’s prose: “I had never read anything like this before.”
What’s particularly poignant about his passing is that we’ll never read anything even remotely like it again. With his death, a certain current in American politics, with its roots on the left, has lost its only remaining voice.
Accounts of Cockburn’s career in the obituaries describe him as a “radical leftist,” but this is only half-true. He was a radical, all right, but as for the “leftist” — I have my doubts. And so did his readers at the Nation, with whom he engaged in a long-running debate over what constituted proper left-wing orthodoxy. This debate included his editors: one “Beat the Devil” column in the Nation bears this footnote:
“The Nation’s editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, wishes it to be on record that she takes exception to the description of Dissent as ‘obscure.’ I suggest a poll of the American people.”
There was a running tension between vanden Heuvel and Cockburn over the Obama Question, and his other “deviations” from the left’s party line: approached by his critics, vanden Heuvel averred “I don’t read Counterpunch” — Cockburn’s feisty newsletter which featured material far too radical for the Obama-worshipping “respectable” Nation. Then there was the “Bush/Hitler” debate, and the climate change controversy — the latter brouhaha the final straw for the kind of up-marketsandal-wearing lefties who still read the Nation. After all, Cockburn was a shameless recidivist: when Bill Clinton was targeting the alleged danger posed by the militia movement in the 1990s, Cockburn defended them, likened them to the Zapatistas, and described one militia rally he attended as “amiable”: he was also staunchly opposed to gun control, a classical leftist position long-forgotten by today’s paladins of political correctness and federal control of everything.
His “Press Clips” column at the Village Voice in the 1970s carried on for nearly a decade, and gave him a platform from which to challenge the conventional wisdom on nearly every conceivable topic. He wrote, not with the pen of an ideologue, but with an eye to the telling detail, the humorous aside, that made his prose stand out from the usual automatic writing that substitutes for real political commentary. In 1983, however, he was fired after the Anti-Defamation League released a booklet detailing the efforts of the “Arab lobby” to influence American journalism. Edward Said’s “Institute for Arab Studies” had awarded him a $10,000 grant to write a book,his accusers averred, a fact Cockburn had failed to disclose to his editors and readers.
The Israel lobby had pulled off yet another successful hit against a critic of Israeli government policies, but they hadn’t gotten rid of Cockburn: he was immediately offered a gig by Victor Navasky, then editor of the Nation, and “Beat the Devil” — named after one of his father’s novels — commenced. In a clever marketing ploy on the part of both the editors and the writer, he was even taken in by the editors of Wall Street Journal, where he wrote a regular column for a while.
The end of the cold war, which sparked a major re-thinking of old dogmas on the American right, had less emphatic consequences on the left, which had long ago replaced the old Marxist shibboleths with new ones: identity politics, the climate change religion, and, more recently, a firm belief in the divinity of Barack Hussein Obama. Yet for Cockburn, an old-fashioned leftist, the implosion of the system his father — a Communist party member — had so consistently defended had a profound effect on his thinking. While the rest of what used to be called the left in this country drifted into Democratic party politics and from there were recruited into the Obama cult, Alex Cockburn stood aloof: scathing in his indictment of Obama’s wars and thecurrent regime, he deviated from contemporary leftist cant in important ways, such as his critique of Obamacare:
“The liberals are howling bout the unfairness of these attacks, led by Sarah Palin, revived by her “Death Panel” talk and equipped with a dexterous new speech writer who is even adding footnotes to her press releases.
“But what is a conservative meant to think? Since the major preoccupation of liberals for 30 years has been the right to kill embryos, why should they not be suspect in their intentions toward those gasping in the thin air of senility? There is a strong eugenic thread to American progressivism, most horribly expressed in its very successful campaign across much of the twentieth century to sterilize “imbeciles.” Abortion is now widening in its function as a eugenic device. Women in their 40s take fertility drugs, then abort the inconvenient twins, triplets or quadruplets when they show up on the scan.”
What is a conservative meant to think, indeed. If he had lived, I believe Cockburn would be having his paleoconservative moment: he was, after all, a paleo-radical who had survived long enough to be considered a reactionary. At the end of his long career as a luminary of the left, he found himself, like H. L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock, denounced as an enabler of “right-wing extremism.” This was due not only to Cockburn’s defense of the militia movement, his caustic comments on the abortion issue, and his climate change “denialism,” but to his dalliance with — I would say outright sympathy for — libertarianism. He admired Ron Paul, and had been friendly to libertarians since at least the 1990s, when we invited him to speak at our first — and, sadly, only — national conference. We ran an exclusive column by him for a while, but his fees were higher than we could manage, unfortunately. I saw him at antiwar events in the Bay Area, and we also appeared at some libertarian-sponsored events together.
His appearance at our conference caused a mini-controversy on the left, where prim-and-proper commie types denounced him for “joining the Devil”: their big objection was that Pat Buchanan was the conference’s keynote speaker — oddly, the same objection the more politically correct libertarians expressed at the time. Left-sectarianshated Cockburn, and penned endless polemics against his “deviations.” Cockburn didn’t care: the caviling of his PC critics amused rather than deterred him.
For all his pedigree as the son of a celebrated “Stalinist” — a point the right-wing obit writers are underscoring — Cockburn was the exact opposite of a party-liner in every sense: I won’t insult his memory by referring to him as a “contrarian” — as if he was simply trying to draw attention to himself. He may have been born into one of Britain’s most distinguished literary families, but there was something quintessentially American about his brand of anarcho-left populism, more akin to the Wobbly tradition than the Leninist and social democratic currents that have dominated the modern American left.
Cockburn’s was almost a lone voice on the left raised against the centralizing, dehumanizing, “humanitarian” war-making trends of modern liberalism. It’s a telling indictment of that movement when I can say with certainty that we shall not see his like again.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I want to draw the attention of my readers to what is an incredible resource: Unz.org. On this site, entrepreneur and activist Ron Unz has gathered together back issues of most of the important magazines — and some not so important — published in the last fifty or so years. There’s all that and more: so please, researchers and others, go an utilize what is an amazing treasure trove. Many thanks to Ron Unz for what is a wonderful public service: I’ve used it more than once in my research, and have now become addicted.