Loving Totalitarianism, Hating Liberalism

Over the weekend here at PA, Kathleen Geier wrote a long, mixed assessment of the legacy of Alexander Cockbburn, who died last week. She covered a lot of territory, much of it beyond my ken, insofar as I never personally experienced the charisma he is said to have exuded, and came of age in a time and place where perusal of Cockburn’s media criticism in the Village Voice was hard to come by.

But my memories of Cockburn, while much dimmer than Kathleen’s, are bright on two persistent features of his noisy writing: he was a stubborn defender of totalitarianism, long after the time when anyone could plead ignorance about the fundamental nature of life in the Soviet Union, and was an equally stubborn detractor of liberalism, from various perspectives. So I’ll pass along the assessment of someone who did know him quite well, and did not consider the charm, the occasional literary flair, or the erratic service to good causes (or more usually, against bad causes) enough to obscure what the man loved and hated. This is from Harold Meyerson at TAP:

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….

[C]ontempt 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.

Plenty of important figures in literature and journalism have been unpleasant people with nasty prejudices and a tendency to combine brave criticism of their own relatively tolerant societies with craven worship of totalitarian monsters who would have killed them (and probably their families) instantly if they had been given the opportunity. I’m perfectly capable of appreciating their work on an ad hoc basis. But I both hope and expect that writers like Cockburn are a fading vestige of the twentieth century.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.