Alexander was brought up in a very particular Communist Party milieu. His father, Claud Cockburn, was from a diplomatic family and went to Berkhamstead College School, an ancient British elite private school, which also produced Winston Churchill’s wife, various cabinet ministers, the fascist AK Chesterton and Graham Greene. Auberon Waugh is a cousin.
Claud Cockburn joined the Communist Party and covered the Spanish Civil War (as “Frank Pitcairn”) for the Daily Worker, joining the International Brigade. The Communist Party played a terrible role in Spain, of course, murdering independent socialists and anarchists. Cockburn worked closely with the Soviet agents who orchestrated both acts of violence against the anti-Stalinist left and the propaganda which whitewashed those acts – such as his friend Mikhail Koltsov (Cockburn: “I spent a great deal of my time in the company of Mikhail Koltzov, who then was foreign editor of Pravda and, more importantly still, was at that period… the confidant and mouthpiece and direct agent of Stalin himself.”). He was also friendly with British agents like Guy Burgess. (His first wife, Hope Hale Davis, went on to marry another spy,
George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is the best account of this. Orwell is sharply critical of the lies Cockburn told about Spain. Here is an example of one of Cockburn’s lies:
Catalonia is full of German and Italian agents working desperately to reorganize the rebellion against the People’s Front government...German and Italian agents, who poured into Barcelona ostensibly in order to ‘prepare’ the notorious ‘Congress of the Fourth International’ had one big task. It was this: they were - in cooperation with the local Trotskyists - to prepare a situation of disorder and bloodshed... a situation in which the Italian and German governments could land troops or marines on the Catalan coasts...The instrument for all this lay ready to hand for the Germans and Italians in the shape of the Trotskyist organization known as the POUM.”*Of course, the POUM, an independent Marxist party, was not Trotskyist (Trotsky criticised it for being too anti-Soviet). Far from being pro-fascist, it was consistently active in militant anti-fascism.
Here’s another example:
“In the past, the leaders of the POUM have frequently sought to deny their complicity as agents of a fascist cause against the People’s Front. This time they are convicted out of their own mouths as clearly as their allies, operating in the Soviet Union, who confessed to the crimes of espionage, sabotage and attempted murder against the government of the Soviet Union.”As Kevin Keating writes:
"His reference to confessions in the Soviet Union is Claud Cockburn’s approving nod to the results of the Moscow Trials, a high point of Stalinist totalitarian delirium, where Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and other leading Bolshevik bureaucrats confessed to absurd charges that they had long been agents of Hitler, the Japanese Emperor and other malefactors, and were subsequently shot.David Walsh at WSWS puts it even more starkly:
"Claud Cockburn's slanders helped prepare the atmosphere in which [POUM leader Andres] Nin and others were murdered. Moreover, his articles were published in the midst of the infamous Moscow Trials. His lies played an objective role in assisting in Stalin's mass extermination of the Soviet socialist intellectuals and workers."Here is how Cockburn later described his job as intellectual hatchet man for Stalin: I “was what, if one were inclined to pomposity, might be called a section leader of the counterespionage department of the Spanish Republican Government dealing with Anglo-Saxon personalities.”
Alexander has seen fit to recycle his dad’s lies. On the 70th anniversary of the Spanish war (I call it the Spanish revolution; the Stalinists never use this term, as they helped crush the revolution), CounterPunch reprinted some of Claud’s writings. In “Scenes from the Spanish Civil War”. Claud Cockburn describes his meeting with the anarchist Buenaventura Durruti (misspelled Durutti by Cockburn). Cockburn writes:
"[Durruti] spoke to me in French and I realized that he was furiously angry. I banded him my credentials, supposing that this evidence of my having the capacity of correspondent of a "Red" newspaper would immediately appease him. He glanced at, them and threw them on the table and then in a low voice, vibrant with hatred, denounced the Communists and all their works. So far as he, undisputed Anarchist boss of Catalonia, was concerned, I might almost as well have been a Fascist.The bitter irony here, of course, is that it was Communists who were murdering anarchists, not the other way around… And then:
The armed bodyguard standing by could not understand what he was saying but his tone told them this was an enemy. It was a time when enemies were shot quickly. I could feel the atmosphere in that kitchen becoming horribly cold. I had a clear conviction that Durutti was in the judgment seat and pronouncing sentence of death. For at that place and time, to be a member of a rival organization on the Republican side -- to be ideologically at variance with the Anarchists -- was, to the pure Anarchist, not very much different from being on the other side altogether."
"I saw him only once again, on a snowy day inThis is a most outrageous lie. Durruti was killed in combat against fascists, not by anarchists. The Friends of Durruti were formed in March 1937, months after Durruti’s death in November 1936, to fight for the libertarian revolution Durruti fought for, against the alliance of the anarchist leadership with the Communists in the Popular Front. In Abel Paz’s splendid biography of Durruti, The People Armed (badly translated from French by the great Nancy MacDonald, one of my heroes), Paz, a comrade of Durutti’s, presents accounts that suggest the incompetence and political manoeuvring of the (Communist-dominated) International Brigades for placing Durruti in the situation that got him killed.
, soon after he bad brought, against bitter opposition in Madrid Barcelona, the pick of his Anarchist fighters from to assist the defense of the Castilian capital. The day after I saw him he was shot dead in the street -- on the ground that he was about to sign a comprehensive agreement with the Communists-by members of an organization called the "Friends of Durutti."" Catalonia
(It is worth noting that the same issue of CounterPunch publishes a piece by George Galloway, eulogising another Stalinist, John Cornford. Galloway, with his typical lack of modesty and bombastic prose, writes:
"But for a bullet in the brain on the Ebro, Rupert John Cornford might have loomed as large as George Orwell in the British left-wing lexicon. Orwell would probably have informed on him to his bosses in British Intelligence. For Cornford was a Communist. Not just a Communist, but a potential leading figure of the party, then rising towards the zenith of its power as the potential nemesis of Fascism, as well as a war poet as brilliant as he is now obscure. Not bad for a man who was killed doing his internationalist duty on his 21st birthday.
John Cornford was the grandson of Charles Darwin, son of the Victorian poet Frances Cornford, and part of the golden generation of the British left who went to fight fascism in Spain. That their memory has been sullied by Orwell's slanders, unfortunately reinforced by Ken Loach's film Land and Freedom, and now lies largely forgotten on the Iberian peninsula by the progressives of the 21st century is the main reason why I am working on an historical novel, Heart of the heartless World at the centre of which is the tall handsome figure of John Cornford."More Stalinist lies.)
Claud eventually left the CP (in 1947 – that is, weathering the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact that made many of his generation, such as his earlier wife Hope Hale Davis, leave). Alexander, though, has on many occasions acted as a defender of its moribund faith.
A leftist critic of Cockburn, Louis Proyect, has described some examples of this:
"He supported the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan on the basis that it was a lesser evil to the misogynist fundamentalism of the village chieftains. He probably was influenced on this score by the CP politics of his father, another famous journalist, Claude Cockburn. But Alex was not a plain vanilla Stalinist. He also extolled the newspaper of the Trotskyist Spartacist League. This I found much more disturbing than his old-line Red Army apologetics. The Sparts, who also supported Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, were--to put it bluntly--nuts. During the Vietnam war, they raised the slogan "Drive the GI's into the sea!" As somebody who had leafleted draftees and knew how important tactful formulations were, I would found have found this slogan an invitation to a broken nose."In 1998, the William Keach of Socialist Workers Party described him fairly accurately thus:
"Cockburn's personal history links him to the politics of the Communist Party, and there are still moments in his writing - debating the number of people estimated to have perished in Stalin's gulags, claiming that 'the Brezhnev years were a Golden Age for the Soviet working class',** when aspects of his father's convictions can be glimpsed."David Walsh provides other examples, from The Golden Age is in Us: “He suggests at one point, for instance, that Stalin had no choice but to sign the Nazi-Soviet pact. He places principal blame for totalitarianism in eastern Europe on the emergence of the Cold War. He cites figures to prove that the US incursions in El Salvador and Guatemala resulted in far more casualties than the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia.” In 1989, when Christopher Hitchens was still at The Nation and on the left, Cockburn defended Fidel Castro from Hitchens’ attacks.
Keach’s analysis is that “The trouble is that Cockburn understands Lenin's maxim through a historical perspective distorted by Stalinist myth.” He quotes more Cockburn:
“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.”***Keach writes:
"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.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."
Long after the collapse of the Stalinist regimes, Cockburn continued to take similar lines. In the summer of 2002, aboard a cruise organised by The Nation, Cockburn asserted that Soviet nuclear proliferation made the world a safer place:
"I remarked that there was one bit of proliferation that seemed to me indisputably okay, which was when the Soviet Union acquired the know-how to make A and H bombs, thus ending the US monopoly on Armageddon, and in my view making the world a safer place. (My position, very shocking to Jonathan Schell, is that every country should have at least one thermonuclear device, if necessary donated by the World Bank along with the "national" flag.)"In 2005, he relatavised away the totalitarian Soviet Union’s vast spy machinery by comparing it to Israel’s:
"I'd reckon that when it comes to agents of influence the USSR back then [in the Alger Hiss period] couldn't hold a candle to Israel today (or then, for that matter, though in that distant time Zionist and Communist were often hats on the same head)."This, to me, is like describing what Israel is doing today as a Holocaust: a comparison that at once trivialises the crimes of Hitler and Stalin, while demonising Israel in an offensive way. (The claim also echoes his father’s “Spies and Two Deaths in Spain”, published by CounterPunch, which suggests that spies were not all they were cranked up to be in the Cold War imagination.) This continues the denialism that defined his earlier period (Cockburn’s “Purging Stalin” in 1989, for example, sought to defend the Soviet experiment from those – like Roy Medvedev – who sought to reveal the extent of its murderousness, condemning them as spouters of State Department propaganda).
Following his well-paid assaults on Clinton for right-wing outlets like New York Post and Wall Street Journal, Cockburn was an enthusiastic supporter of Ralph Nader in 2000; his vicious attacks on Al Gore (e.g. Al Gore: A User's Manual) played a part in rallying the left to Nader. The Nader vote, of course, was what gave America, and the world, a George W Bush presidency.
(Faux-ecologist Cockburn has also supported a cause Bush has flirted with: global warning denial. Although this is driven by Cockburn’s hatred of Gore, the apostle of global warning, as much as anything else (although it fits in with his pro-nuclear stance, mentioned above), it has placed him in the same dodgy political space as the remnants of Britain’s Revolutionary Communist Party and Lyndon LaRouche, as Louis Proyect has shown.)
Since 2000, anti-Bushism has become the central plank of the neo-Stalinist liberal milieu in which he moves. Anti-Bushism, of course, makes for strange bedfellows. Cockburn has a regular column for Antiwar.com, the far right paleo-libertarian website run by Justin Raimondo, which appears to be leftist but is, on closer examination, largely fascist. This convergence was anticipated by Cockburn’s famous 1990s defence of the far right Militia movement, for which he was criticised by Janet Biehl, Katha Pollitt and David Walsh among others.
In the war on terror, Cockburn has opened up the pages of CounterPunch to various antisemites and fellow travellers with Islamist totalitarianism, writers like Alan Cabal and Daniel A. McGowan who elsewhere have defended the free speech of Holocaust deniers such as Ernest Zundel. It has published Israel Lobby conspiracy theorists Walt and Mearsheimer. It has been attacked in 2005 and 2006 by Jews Against Zionism for its peddling of the hate speech of Gilad Atzmon and his acolyte Mary Rizzo.
"Why is the history of the Cockburn family franchise--now operated by the son--of political importance? Primarily because of the light it sheds on the New Left, a movement with which the younger Cockburn is closely identified.It is not accidental that the middle class radicalism of the 1960s passed on such a meager intellectual legacy and produced so few revolutionists. At the heart of the New Left's political weakness lay an avoidance of the basic historical questions posed by Stalinism and the fate of the Soviet Union. In certain cases, such as Cockburn's, these issues cut too close to the bone. For others, who justified their ideological indifference on "practical" grounds, the problems were simply too complicated.
An eclectic catch-all of political conceptions, with a dash of Maoism [in the 1960s, Cockburn spoke of "the astonishing works of Mao Tse Tung--philosopher and general, poet and statesman"], Castroism, "libertarianism" and other assorted ideological spices, the New Left could not provide a coherent perspective upon which to base a political struggle."I would argue that it is worth paying attention to the Cockburn family franchise today because it sheds light on the new New Left, the convergence of Islamist theocrats and Third Worldist authoritarian nationalists with their liberal and “libertarian” useful idiots, fuelled by conspiracy theory, degenerated “anti-imperialism” and paranoid hatred of Israel and America, a formation whose house magazine is CounterPunch.
POSTSCRIPT: After writing this, I read this post, which takes a similar line: Terry Glavin: Counterpunch, Official Organ of the Reactionary Left, on Afghanistan (Linked to by stubble jumping redneck) Commenting on Terry's piece, David T asks "Does anybody here still seriously want to argue that Counterpunch is not a magazine of the far Right?" And on Alexander's brother, Patrick, see this post from Cedar Lounge, as well as the comments thread to this post.
*“Pitcairn lifts Barcelona Veil; Trotskyist rising as signal,” Daily Worker, May 11, 1937, Pages 182 to 184 Cockburn in Spain: Dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, published in 1986 by the CP publisher Lawrence and Wishart text, quoted by Kevin Keating.
** A Cockburn, The Golden Age is in Us: Journeys & Encounters (London, 1996), p226
*** Ibid, p226.
**** Ibid, p227-228.
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