Appreciation: Alexander Cockburn

Remembering the writer and polemicist, who died last week at the age of 71.

Once asked why he became a permanent resident of the US in 1973, Alexander Cockburn tersely replied: “Oh, England was horrible.” It was perhaps appropriate, then, that the radical journalist’s death on 21 July at the age of 71 was barely reported in the land he spurned. Though he wrote for a succession of British titles in the early years of his career, including the New Statesman, it is for his columns in the Village Voice (the pioneering Press Clips), the Wall Street Journal and the Nation, that he will be remembered.

His column for the latter, which appeared bi-weekly for 28 years, was entitled “Beat the Devil” after the 1951 noir novel by his Irish father, Claud, best known as one of the finest practitioners of 20th-century muckraking journalism. Though his mother longed for him to become an oilman – “she dreamt of me becoming the vice-president of Exxon”, Cockburn quipped – his father’s radical politics (he was an activist of the British Communist Party) and exemplary prose, alternating between comic irony and lofty invective, provided Cockburn with a model to emulate. Among Claud’s bon mots was the rule that one should “never believe anything until it’s officially denied”. Alexander adopted this gently mocking style, once declaring Gerald Ford to be “America’s greatest president” on the Hippocratic grounds that “he did the least possible harm”. Such qualities are also present in the work of his brothers, Andrew and Patrick, who collectively represent one of the greatest journalistic dynasties of modern times. Patrick, the Independent’s Middle East correspondent, is responsible for much of the best reporting from Iraq, and Andrew’s books, including Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy and Saddam Hussein: an American Obsession, are essential chronicles of America’s imperial decline. To this list, one can add Stephanie Flanders, the BBC’s economics editor, who is a half-niece of the brothers. But through the range of his journalism and the strength of his political commitments, it was Alexander who emerged as his father’s successor.

Intellectual odyssey

Much of his finest writing is collected in The Golden Age is in Us (1995), an intellectual odyssey in which Cockburn turned his pen to Colette, transvestism, sexual manners and hate mail. His polemics against US and Israeli foreign policy were clear-sighted and often prescient, but his political writing was marred by nostalgia for Soviet Stalinism. Cockburn was at his best when assailing the “lesser evilism” of an American left that excused policies enacted by a Democratic president (in this case, Bill Clinton) which it would never tolerate from a Republican. Yet he exhibited just this defect in relation to the Soviet Union, celebrating it as a “counterweight to US imperialism”. He never recognised that it was a rival empire to be denounced, not an ally to be applauded. Even more egregious was his denial of man-made climate change and insistence that the French National Front leader Marine Le Pen was “quite reasonably exploiting the intense social discontent in France”. To describe these stances as “contrarian”, as so many did, would be to unfairly impute bad faith to Cockburn. He was simply and unforgivably wrong.

Announcing Cockburn’s death from cancer, Jeffrey St Clair, with whom Cockburn co-edited the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch, wrote that his friend “kept his illness a tightly guarded secret”, adding that he “didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done”. For much of his life, Cockburn’s name was indelibly linked with that of Hitchens. Both were expensively educated émigrés who recognised early in their careers that there was a market for Oxford radicals who would say the outrageous things their staid American counterparts would not. Comrades for years at the Nation, Cockburn terminated their friendship after a succession of feuds, branding Hitchens a “lying, self-serving, fat-assed, chain-smoking, drunken, opportunistic, cynical contrarian”. When I interviewed Hitchens for the NS in 2010, he told me that he “avoided responding in kind” out of respect for the rest of the Cockburn family, with whom he enjoyed more fraternal relations. One sensed that Cockburn’s pathological criticism of Hitchens was partly born of envy at the greater fame of a man, eight years his junior, who first emulated his achievements in US journalism and then surpassed them.

While Hitchens emerged as a literary critic of distinction, writing elegantly about Proust, Bellow and Nabokov for the Atlantic, Cockburn retreated into the world of pamphlet wars and quick-fire polemics. But his best political writing was still infused with a range of literary and poetic reference now rare in the industry. Like Hitchens, Cockburn stood in the radical tradition of James Cameron, I F Stone and Gore Vidal. In this age of high specialisation, one searches in vain for their successors.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

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Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.