You know that when hosannas of praise rise up for a journalist who died, simply described in the New York Times obituary as a “left-wing writer,” that a great deal remains unsaid. The writer who passed away a few days ago is Alexander Cockburn, and the piece by Colin Moynihan says that he became known as an “unapologetic leftist, condemning what he saw as the outrages of the right but also castigating the American liberal establishment when he thought it as being timid.” He is described by a former colleague at the Village Voice as having “a remarkable mind.”
One could say his mind was remarkable, if one chooses to use that word to describe someone who once wrote that the Soviet Union in Leonid Brezhnev’s day was “the golden age of the Soviet working class,” and who regularly reprinted Soviet and Cuban disinformation from their intelligence agencies as unadulterated truths.
In many ways, Alex Cockburn was the true successor of Walter Duranty, a man who wrote to serve the enemies of the United States and to glorify what he saw as the great achievements of the Bolsheviks and their successors.
So let us turn now to what others have said about him. The Washington Post obituary writer refers to him as “an avowed liberal — even a radical,” which is like saying Pat Buchanan is just another conservative, even one possibly on the far Right. Ralph Nader, we learn, called Cockburn a man of the Left “who defined the frontiers of candid progressive ideas.” What one can learn is that Cockburn could be judged by the views of his admirers.
One of them is Justin Raimondo, the proprietor of Antiwar.com, the website that tried its best to forge a Red-Brown alliance of the Right and the far Left in the cause of opposition to “American imperialism and interventionism.” He reminds us, because he was Cockburn’s comrade in opposition to the NATO war against the Milosevic regime during the Clinton presidency, during which Cockburn shared the platform at rallies with Pat Buchanan. Raimondo thinks Cockburn was not of the Left, but was a populist anarcho-syndicalist, whatever that may be, and later, he thinks that Cockburn was having a “paleoconservative moment,” since he was “a paleo-radical who had had survived long enough to be considered a reactionary.”
Raimondo and his friends on the paleocon Right of course would be happy to have Cockburn as an ally, but to exonerate Cockburn of Stalinism simply ignores all the evidence of the many times Cockburn — like his father Claud, who served the NKVD during the Spanish Civil War as Stalin’s favorite toady journalist in Spain — lied on behalf on totalitarians.
To read about the background of Cockburn and the links to his father, I highly recommend first this article written a few years ago by a blogger that provides chapter and verse about Claude Cockburn and his son Alex. The writer shows how Alex regularly sought to replicate and endorse his father’s lies.
I know this because over the years I was the subject of Cockburn’s attacks. They reveal a hard-line Stalinist, not a mythical, crusading journalist heralded by his colleagues at The Nation (like John Nichols) as a simple teller of truth to power.
One fight I had with him was over the former Cuban political prisoner Armando Valladares, whose memoir Against All Hope I reviewed favorably for the New York Times Book Review. Valladares was the first political prisoner to make known the truth about the torture state that Fidel Castro had created in Cuba, thereby making the public aware for the first time in our country of the reality of how Castro treated his country’s political opponents. Accepting the Castro regime’s claims as absolute truth, Cockburn wrote that I had left out of my review that Valladares had been “a police officer in the Batista regime.” His point was simple: a hated cop for the old regime, Valladares’ account of his torture in prison was all made up.
I wrote the following in a letter to the editor of The Nation that appeared in their Sept. 20, 1986 issue:
When it comes to Castro’s Cuba, where human rights abuses are as widespread as in any nation on earth, he writes only to cast doubt on the testimony of witnesses to torture. One can only conclude that Cockburn supports the tortures carried out by the left-wing dictators whose policies he favors. … Anyone who regularly offers Cuban and Soviet police disinformation to his readers as ‘fact’ should have little credibility.
To this, Cockburn replied with trademark name-calling. He posited that I gave the book a good review because I liked getting paid “for dashing off another anti-Castro diatribe.” He then explained to his readers that I was “a professional anticommunist, with the tunnel vision that goes with that trade.” And again, he denied — as the world knows by now was the truth — that “there is any institutionalized torture in Cuba.” So much for a man that his legion of fans praise for telling the truth and for being some kind of a maverick — not a leftist at all.
Another cause to which he devoted much space was trying to prove that the Soviet refusenik and leading dissident Anatoly Sharansky was indeed a spy for the United States, just as the Communists had claimed. In a 1986 column, he posited a conspiracy of L.A. Times reporter Robert Toth and Sharansky to publish Soviet defense secrets as supposedly innocent news stories. One of his efforts, Cockburn claimed, was to work for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and get a catalogue of Soviet military installations.
And perhaps I should end by citing one of his most infamous columns, which a good Samaritan has put on the internet for those without access to The Nation archives. Here Cockburn attempted to refute the claims of the Soviet historian Roy Medvedev, who had concluded that 20 million Russians had died as a result of Stalin’s policies. He quoted favorably the historian Jerry Hough, who was one of the most fierce apologists for Stalin and who had argued that only hundreds of thousands had died in the purges, not a number in excess of one million.
What was behind this obscene number crunching was Cockburn’s desire to denigrate those who dared compare Stalin to Hitler, especially Robert Conquest, whom Cockburn went out of his way to attack. As he put it, to place high numbers on those killed by Stalin had a “regulatory ideological function,” so as to put down anyone who says fewer people were killed by Stalin were therefore “soft” on him. So Cockburn wrote: “The symmetry that calculations such as Medvedev’s seeks to establish between Stalin and Hitler performs, in its service to ideology, similar injury to history.”
One might say, to use those very words, that Cockburn’s service to ideology was meant, just as it was by his father, to paint a portrait meant to explain the Soviet policy in the Stalin years as one that sought to minimize death, and hence to reveal Josef Stalin as a humane and practical leader who did his best to save as many lives as he could. Speaking of doing injury to history, indeed.
Finally, read this article by John Paul-Pagano, who calls Cockburn out for no-holds-barred, old-style antisemitism, including the use of the blood libel charge against Jews, which he terms Cockburn’s “most wicked accomplishment.” Israel was guilty of organ harvesting of Palestinians they killed for just that purpose. As Pagano writes, Cockburn wanted “you to believe a broader, darker narrative that Israel maintains the occupation of the Palestinians in part to shore up its reserves of organs for Jews in need of donations.”
The defender of Stalin turns out to have been a crazed low-level antisemite as well. No wonder he got along so well with Pat Buchanan. Those who celebrate Alex Cockburn’s life have a lot of explaining to do.