The Man Who Hated Liberals

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. 


I was no fan of Cockburn's and this is a quibble, but I don't like seeing someone maligned for something he should be commended for. The claim that he "downplayed" the number of victims of Stalinism I assume is based on that column he wrote puncturing popular, wildly inflated estimates (20-50 million) of the Stalinist death toll. After surveying a number of credible sources, he came up with an estimate of 3.5 million. Hardly a trivial number! And, based on the best estimates now available (T, Snyder, Bloodlands) the actual number was most likely 6-9 million, depending on how you count. That's a lot closer to 3.5 than to 20 million. I believe that the crazy over-estimates gained currency in part because people were reluctant to challenge them--who, after all, wants to "defend" Stalin ? Cockburn wasn't inhibited in that way.

What a despicable, intellectually void gob of ad hominem malice Meyerson's essay is--ironically, the very kind of invective you impute to Cockburn, but to the tenth power of nastiness, and minus his elegance and substance.

Your thesis--such as it is--seems to be that Cockburn was animated by an irrational, genetically transmitted contempt for liberals and "liberal values." That seems to be the essence of your assessment of this man's work, buttressed by nothing more than gossip anecdotes and bizarre inference: "What must have really irked Alex . . ."; "It was surely one reason why for several years The Wall Street Journal opened its op-ed page to him every week . . ." and so on, unto pure unsubstantiated, petty malice.

What is glaringly absent from this snide slag job is any discussion of the issues that animated Cockburn's polemics against the Democratic Party apologists at The American Prospect and throughout the pseudo-progressive liberal left. For decades, now, you have been urging your readers to line up like sheep to the slaughter to cast their ballots for a corporate-financed party that has given us, in no particular order: the repeal of Glass-Steagall, welfare "reform," unregulated derivative trading, corporate stranglehold on media (courtesy of the Telecommunications Act of 1996), massive job hemmhoraging through WTO/NAFTA, near-paralysis on alternative energy funding and the climate-change emergency, collusion with the corporate assault on the environment (Obama opened the Arctic and the East Coast to offshore drilling, expanded fossil fuel production and fracking, provided loans to build the first nuclear power plant in 30 years, and welcomed the beginning of construction on the Keystone XL pipeline), multitrillion-dollar bailout of the criminal banksters, continuation of Bush's assault on civil liberties--and shredding of the Magna Carta--with the appalling NDAA military-detention provision, enabling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (authorized and funded with the votes of all key Democrats in both houses), taking a dive on union card check and a boost in minimum wage, failure to push for the major New-Deal-style stimulus legislation needed to create jobs and revive the economy . . . PLUS overt opposition to every key plank of the progressive agenda: crushing single payer, scuttling public financing of elections, shunning significant reductions in military spending, opposition to a carbon tax

Yet despite your feeble protests that you dissent from this or that atrocity of contemporary corporate neoliberalism, you and your journal dutifully parrot the DNC party line every two years in herding voters to the polls to vote for precisely these knaves and their destructive procorporate agenda.

THAT is the nub of Cockburn's (and Hedges' and Chomsky's and Berman's and Nader's, etc.) critique of your tepid, insider "liberalism": it has neither the theoretical tools nor the intellectual honesty nor the clarity of vision to do anything but counsel defeatist prostration before the neoliberal juggernaut of the corporate-owned Democrats.

As we contemplate the implosion of the American economy and the climate catastrophe that loom every closer thanks to the Democrats that you will again tell us to vote for in 2012, we should all be grateful that people like Alex Cockburn have had the character and vision to stand up and say no rather than be sucked into this vortex of disaster, like you and your spineless colleages at Demos and The American Prospect.

Your essay cannot disguise the elemental truth that Cockburn exposed time and again about you and your milieu: your thin veneer of "left" rhetoric cannot conceal your mainstream, careerist complicity in the gathering crimes and calamities of a rotten status quo. For that we--serious, thoughtful progressives--owe Cockburn a debt of gratitude, and to you the contempt that he so justifiably heaped on you.

you poor little guy. had to wait until he died to work up the nerve to write this embarrassing piffle. at least cockburn made fun of hitchens et al when they were alive. even if i agreed with you, it's still a shoddy polemic.

Apparently unlike the your normal readers, I agree with you. For a very long time, Cockburn was the reason I did not read, much less subscribe to, The Nation. He and his ilk were and are a standing rebuke to the democratic left that ought to firmly reject them and a standing invitation to the right to smear us as no better than reds, ourselves.

Looks like the AC fans have minds much like his. Note the Stalinist venom in the comment by kman484 and the bloated arrogance of herald50. Sort of like the mean bitches who have their own clique in a bad high school movie.

Anyway, thanks for the candor.

Your comment is pure ad hom diversionary garbage.

Please specify EXACTLY what is "Stalinist" about my comment.

Unlike you, I attempted to focus on issues--unlike both you and your role model in spiteful invective, Harold Meyerson. When you speak of "democratic left," perhaps you erred--surely you meant to write "Democratic left," for the only thing that is "democratic" about your putative leftism is its blind, self-destructive loyalty to the corporate-owned and -controlled hirelings of the Democratic Party.

Now I listed at least a dozen key issues on which your beloved Democrats have been at one with the Republicans in serving the intersts of the 1 percent and betraying the interests of the 99 percent.

As soon as I see you address those issues, we'll know we can take you seriously.

Barring that, we'll know that you're just waving another handkerchief of diversion from the manifold sellouts and treacheries of the neoliberal knaves that you and Meyerson and your ilk sheepishly nod your heads for, like bobblehead dolls, every two years, thereby helping to lead the country into the state of corporate peonage that your feebly claim to oppose in your empty, vague, "leftish" posturing.

Issues, please--no more facile ad home calumnies. Let's here what you have to say about the issues I listed--or please retreat to a discreet silence.

CORRECTION: That should be "let's hear" in my final paragraph, not "let's here."

I should also note, as an addendum, the irony of Philo Vaihinger tossing off the "Stalnist" smear in his vacuous smear job--it was precisely the methodology of Stalin and his ideological henchmen to substitute personal slanders for substantive political debate--Trotsky and all the old Bolsheviks that he murdered were "agents of imperialism," etc., etc.

This machinery of calumy is precisely replicated in small-bore manner by the snarling Philo. Now, Philo--you have the chance to redeem yourself from your own arrantly Stalinist obloquy--my post above contains a robust roster of Democratic complicity in the criminal agenda of the 1 percent, and your own and other pseudo-left liberals' enabling of these atrocities.

Let's see if you can wipe the foam from your mouth long enough to rationally address these ISSUES.

How funny. Meyerson's problem with Cockburn's "Stalinism" has been taken care of by another commenter. But I have to comment on the notion that the posterity of Brezhnev is one of contempt. Hmm,I'd say the poll numbers of Russians on Brezhnev compare favorably to those of Americans on Reagan, and certainly surpass, say, Carter. In fact, this gives a gloss to the screed - Myerson is displaying exactly the kind of provincial outlook that Cockburn loved to needle, where the American establishment's opinions about, say, a foreign leader vastly overshadow anything that might be thought about him by the paltry unwashed who happen to live in the country where he lived. It is the same mentality that gave us the lovely Madame Chiang, the democratic kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Iraq's De Gaulle, A. Chalabi.

This is from the Wikipedia article on what Russians think of Brezhnev:

"Brezhnev has fared well in Russian opinion polls when compared to his successors and predecessors. However, in the West he is most commonly remembered for starting the economic stagnation which triggered the dissolution of the Soviet Union.[29] A 2000 poll by VTsIOM asked various Russians the question "Was a given period more positive or more negative for the country?". 36 percent of the people polled viewed Brezhnev's tenure as more positive than negative. His predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev trailed close behind him, earning 33 percent.[30] A poll by the Public Opinion Fund in September 1999 similarly chose the Brezhnev period as the time in the 20th century when "ordinary people lived best", having a clear majority of 51 to 10. In a similar poll done in 1994, Brezhnev garnered a majority of only 36 to 16.[31] According to a 2006 Public Opinion Fund poll, 61 percent of the Russian people viewed the Brezhnev era as good for the country.[32] A poll by the VTsIOM in 2007 showed that the majority of Russians would choose to live during the Brezhnev era over any other period of 20th century Russian history.[33] Researchers have noted a surge in Brezhnev's popularity, along with other communist rulers, during and in the aftermath of the Russian financial crisis of 1998, which is well remembered by many Russians for plunging many into poverty."

HM, how do you feel about Howard Zinn, by the way?

And you do get a lot of trolls, here. My condolences.

A troll being someone who spews vitriol but avoids discussion of issues.

Could that be your, Philo?

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(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)