The custom, I know, is not to speak ill of the recently dead, but it’s not a custom to which I’ve invariably adhered. Ronald Reagan’s death evoked so many hagiographic tributes I felt compelled to write a Washington Post column noting the damage he’d done to his country and to the liberal values that, when honored, made his country great.
Like Reagan, columnist and controversialist Alexander Cockburn, who died a few days ago, was no friend of liberal values or of liberals, social democrats or democratic socialists. Like Christopher Hitchens and David Horowitz, he found his comfort zone on the fringes of the political spectrum, whether left, right or simultaneously both. The son of Claud Cockburn, a Communist Party journalist whose misrepresentations of the Spanish Civil War prodded George Orwell to write Homage to Catalonia, Alex never ceased casting Stalin in the best light possible, consistently downplaying the number of Russians (including virtually all the original Bolsheviks) who died by his hand. Alex also periodically issued forth with defenses of Brezhnev, which was more remarkable yet: While Stalin retained a few nostalgic apologists, Brezhnev had virtually none. I still remember one column in which Alex enthused about the rise in the number of refrigerators in the Soviet Union in the days of the beetle-browed Leonid—a blast from the Frigidaire Faction of Kelvinator Kommunism.
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I actually edited Alex’s columns in the L.A. Weekly, where I was the news and politics editor. When editor-in-chief Kit Rachlis (now editor-in-chief here at The American Prospect) had taken the helm in 1988, Alex’s column was one of the paper’s leading features—he’d been a trenchant critic of the Reagan Administration’s support for the Contras earlier in the decade, which had been a major focus of the Weekly’s coverage. But Cockburn also cooked up causes of his own (one of many reasons why Kit eventually stopped running his column).
I remember in particular the controversy around the sacking of the great editor Andre Schiffrin from Pantheon Books in early 1990, as Random House sought to cut the budget at Pantheon, which it had purchased some years previous. In his three decades at Pantheon, Schiffren had turned it into the nation’s foremost progressive publishing house, publishing the work of Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut, Noam Chomsky and a host of other notable writers. When he was let go, many of those writers joined others not in the Pantheon stable, including E.L. Doctorow, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Todd Gitlin, in protesting his dismissal. Cockburn let fly with a column attacking them all—Schiffrin and Gitlin, who had organized the protest, in particular. The grounds for his attack made no sense whatever: that Gitlin was insufficiently anti-Contra and that all these writers should pay more attention to the predations of U.S. foreign policy than to the Schiffrin firing. It was an odd charge to level against the likes of Chomsky (who relentlessly attacked every single U.S. foreign policy, real or imagined) or, for that matter, against any of the protestors, who universally had opposed Reaganism at home and abroad.
What must have really irked Alex, not that he dropped so much of a hint of this in his piece, was that Schiffrin was a democratic socialist who not only had opposed the Vietnam War but also the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and that he had published the great anti-Stalinist Boris Pasternak. Anti-communist socialists—Orwell, Schiffrin, Irving Howe, whom Alex took particular pleasure in calumniating—threatened Alex’s claim to radical rectitude (not to mention communism’s claim to socialist legitimacy) by their goddam democratic scruples. By attacking Schiffrin, Alex was able to do what he loved most: singling himself out from a presumably conformist, contemptible herd, even though the herd, in this case, included many if not most of America’s serious left-of-center writers.
This contempt for liberals and social democrats was a hallmark of Cockburn’s work. It was surely one reason why for several years The Wall Street Journal opened its op-ed page to him every week: The editors had found a left-wing columnist who detested liberals and liberalism as much they. It informed, if that’s the word, Cockburn’s attacks on Al Gore and his paeans to Ralph Nader during the 2000 presidential campaign, and his more recent crusade for climate-change denialism. Like Hitchens (a more felicitous writer) at his worst, and like Horowitz (an immeasurably less felicitous one) consistently, Cockburn lived on and for the extremes, a nasty pen at the ready, and bile on tap for all occasions.