ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, March 1998


William Keach

In Perspective:

Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens


From International Socialism 2:78, March 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens are among a handful of writers based in the US whose regular columns, articles and books offer sustained leftist criticism of Clinton’s America. Whatever the limits of their contribution to building a serious political alternative, Cockburn and Hitchens have done much to keep thoughtful, at times radical, analysis and resistance alive in a period when American liberalism and social democracy offer little but defensive capitulation to Clintonism.

Radical journalists: from Britain to the US

Cockburn and Hitchens began their careers as Oxford-educated radicals and precocious London-based journalists. Cockburn grew up in Ireland: his father was the well known Communist Party activist and writer Claud Cockburn. Hitchens described his background as ‘very naval, military, and conservative’: his father was a naval officer based in Portsmouth. Hitchens was ‘the first member of my family ever to go to private school or even to university’. [1]

Cockburn worked at the Times Literary Supplement for two years in the mid-1960s, then at New Left Review and The New Statesman. He co-edited volumes published by Penguin on the trade unions and the student movement before moving to the US in 1973, at a time when the gruesome war in South East Asia was finally winding down and the movements of the 1960s were losing steam. Hitchens, who is some seven years younger, was already reviewing for The New Statesman as a student at Balliol College, Oxford. After he graduated, Balliol gave him a scholarship to travel in the US. He returned to London and a job on the Times Higher Education Supplement, then he published a little book on Marx and the Paris Commune and, at the age of 22, was offered a job on the staff of The New Statesman. His professional friends at that time, he says, were Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, James Fenton and Timothy Noel:

I realised these guys were better at [writing fiction] than I was. It was rather intimidating that they were so good. It made me specialise more in the generalist-type political essay. But they were very good people to work with, for style. They persuaded me it wasn’t enough just to make the point: that style was substance. [2]

Hitchens brought this attitude with him when he moved to the US in the early 1980s.

Cockburn and Hitchens are best known now to US readers through their columns in The Nation, a fortnightly magazine with a largish subscription (’One American in 2,559 subscribes to The Nation’ reads their current internal ad) and a political spectrum that runs from mainstream Democratic Party liberal to social democratic. Cockburn’s Beat the Devil column, which has appeared in The Nation since 1984, stands significantly outside this spectrum, in ways that I’ll discuss more fully later on. Cockburn wrote regularly for the Village Voice for many years, and throughout the 1980s appeared as licensed radical on the opinions page of the Wall Street Journal. Now he writes a nationally syndicated column for the Los Angeles Times and is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, Atlantic, Harper’s, and In These Times. His books include Corruptions of Empire (1987), The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon (1989, with Susan Hecht), The Golden Age is in Us (1995), and the brilliant Washington Babylon (1996, with Ken Silverstein). In 1996 he and Silverstein launched CounterPunch, a superb six to ten page muckraker that ‘Tells the facts and names the names’ twice monthly.

Hitchens’s column in The Nation, Minority Report, began running in 1982. He has also served as Washington editor of Harper’s and as book critic for the New York paper Newsday, and he is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books, Granta, New Left Review, Dissent, as well as to such expensive, yuppy-chic magazines as Vogue and Vanity Fair (his column in the latter is called Fin de Siècle). In addition to his early book on the Paris Commune, Hitchens is the author of Callaghan: The Road to Number Ten (1976), Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger (1989, scheduled to be reissued by Verso in the autumn), Imperial Spoils: The Case of the Parthenon Marbles (1989), Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies (1990), The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice (1995). Many of his columns and articles are collected in Prepared for the Worst (1989) and For the Sake of Argument (1993). In 1988 he co-edited with Edward Said and also contributed to an excellent volume published by Verso called Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question.

Muckraking and stylish exposé

To think about Cockburn and Hitchens is to realise just how much political muck there is to be raked through these days in the US. Nobody does this kind of journalistic work with more fearless tenacity and sharper wit than Cockburn. In one issue of The Nation Cockburn exposed why his editors had reduced his regular column. Right wingers have ‘chided me in the past for being keener to attack the Clinton crowd than Newt and his gang’, Cockburn notes, and:

Navasky and vanden Heuvel [The Nation’s editors] taxed me with the same supposed sin a few months before the 96 election, when the All-Out-For-Bill drive was in full spate. Well, there’s no keener pleasure in life than giving liberal pretensions a sound kick in the backside, and besides, a lot of the enduring damage is done by liberals and by the liberal culture of which this magazine – which Navasky and vanden Heuvel carefully call ‘independent’ rather than ‘left’ – is an increasingly sedulous exponent. [3]

This kind of feisty independence from his own editors and from what the US mainstream regards as ‘the left’ gives Cockburn’s voice its distinctive polemical edge. He goes on in this column to defend a journalist who has just been sacked from In These Times (another left-liberal magazine with smaller circulation that The Nation) for daring to ‘raise the name of Leon Trotsky’; to ridicule Martin Walker, US bureau chief of The Guardian, for being ‘a sycophant in the Clinton Court from the start’ and for his disgusting praise of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s policy towards Iraq; and to continue an exposure of recent censorship at another hallowed liberal institution, Pacifica Radio. Cockburn concludes the last of his two page Beat the Devils with splendid sarcasm:

As you can see, such sagas indicate that the whole non-profit third sector that underwrites liberalism in America is marking out the limits of permissible discourse. Welcome to a political culture defined by the MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Pew Charitable Trust, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment ... [liberals] called for bold new thinking and fresh ideas, just like that Clinton clone Tony Blair, now pledging to honour Tory budgets, Tory schedules of privatisation, the Thatcherite agenda more or less in toto, all under the approving endorsement of Rupert Murdoch. But dear me! I see I’m overshooting even the two page limit. Sorry to run on so. It won’t happen again.

Cockburn specialises in uncompromising denunciations of liberals and soft-leftists who try to defend themselves in The Nation’s Letters column from his attacks. When Patricia Scott, executive director of Pacifica Radio, writes to defend her organisation’s commitment to ‘alternative viewpoints, freedom of the press’, Cockburn replies with, ‘Don’t make me laugh ... Gag orders and secret board meetings ... should not be procedures associated with public radio’. [4] Many a Nation reader over the years has written in to protest at Cockburn’s unmannerly assault on his or her favourite liberal or social democratic intellectual or politician, only to have Cockburn respond with a savage refusal to be nice.

The best of Cockburn’s recent work as muckraker and gadfly is to be found in Washington Babylon. The obvious pleasure Cockburn takes in his role as maverick journalist seems to enable, rather than impede, his collaborative research and writing with Ken Silverstein, both in this book and in CounterPunch. Washington Babylon specifically targets the national press and media establishment, the Congress, the lobbyists, the presidency – those key institutions of ruling class power and manipulation that most Americans rightly see as corrupt. ‘Both major political parties’, Cockburn and Silverstein say in their introduction,

have been bought up by big money from corporations and wealthy Americans ... More than 100 corporate political actions committees contribute to both ‘liberal Democrat’ Richard Gephardt and ‘right wing Republican’ Newt Gingrich. Never have Tweedledee and Tweedledum been so indistinguishable. [5]

Quoting Hal Draper’s famous article, Who’s Going to be the Lesser Evil in 1968?, Cockburn and Silverstein show that Draper’s argument against the politics of ‘lesser evilism’ in 1968 applies even more decisively to the US today. Democratic Party politicians widely believed to offer a respectable alternative to Clintonian sleaze are revealed as offering no such thing. Recently retired Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey fought long and hard to defend the interests of the huge drug companies based in his state. That he did so is not surprising: ‘The pharmaceutical industry spends about $10 billion a year on advertising and promotion’. [6] In 1993, when Clinton himself proposed to make the government the sole buyer of childhood vaccines and to distribute them free to all children, it was Bradley who led the successful fight against this reform – despite the fact that US drug companies have raised vaccine prices by 1,000 percent in the last 15 years, and that fewer than two thirds of two year old children receive the full spectrum of recommended immunisations. It’s this kind of analysis and exposure, aimed at politicians and institutions who tend to evade widespread public anger, that makes Washington Babylon, and Cockburn’s writing generally, important.

Hitchens too can be an effective muckraker. In a Minority Report column from April 1997, for example, he exposes the crimes of Jacques Foccart, the Gaullist ‘destabiliser, the assassin, the paymaster and the procurer for the French neo-colonies’ in Zaire and other French dominated African countries. [7] For the Sake of Argument contains good pieces from the late 1980s and early 1990s – like Befriending the Kurds, in which Hitchens surveys the appalling history of US promises to and betrayals of these stateless and beleaguered people. [8] Songs Fit for Heroes is based on Hitchens’s access to ‘the recreational songbook of the 77th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the United States Air Force, based at Upper Heyford’ just outside Oxford. One of the less offensive verses Hitchens quotes from this noble document runs as follows:

Phantom flyers in the sky,
Persian-pukes prepare to die.
Rolling in with snake and nape,
Allah creates but we cremate.

Hitchens notes that the songbook attributes one of its stirring quotations to a famous Nazi Luftwaffe pilot. [9]

But Hitchens’s preferred mode is the scandalous personal encounter narrative or review essay, rather than the detailed investigative excavation into the squalid brutalities of mainstream politics. In his regular pieces for the London Review of Books he lets the author in question produce the muck – then he comes in with his sardonic wit. Such is the case in a review in February 1997 of a book by Clinton’s scandalously discredited former campaign adviser, Dick Morris:

I was travelling in Illinois when I first heard some beefy local pol utter the profound post-modern truth that ‘politics is showbiz for ugly people’. Yes, you too may be a mediocre, flaky-scalped, pudgy sycophant. But, with the right ‘skills’, you also can possess a cellular phone and keep a limo on call and ‘take meetings’ and issue terse directives like ‘I want this yesterday, understand.’ Unfortunately, the women you meet in the politics biz will tend to be rather too much like yourself. But, hey, bimbos can be rented! And won’t they just be impressed to death when you pass them the bedroom telephone extension and it’s the Prez talking. [10]

This is characteristic Hitchens prose, full of funny turns that derive their energy from a disgusted fascination with the sordid world he parodies. Where Cockburn usually writes at a serious literal and critical distance from this world, Hitchens writes much more from inside it, up close to it. A recent London Review of Books account of John Davis’s Intimate Memoir of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis begins like this:

The 44 Restaurant in the Royalton Hotel at 44 West 44th Street is a pretty suave and worldly Manhattan lunchery. So at any rate it seems to my provincial, country mouse Washingtonian optic. I am sometimes taken there for a treat by my editors at Conde Nast, who use the place as a sort of staff canteen. [11]

Hitchens likes to be the left journalist with the Balliol pedigree who gets invited to places like the Royalton Hotel and then reveals how corrupt they are.

But if the manner and stance of Hitchens’s journalism is often snobbish and self-regarding, its political substance is often worth taking seriously. Like Cockburn, he is an articulate Clinton hater. A piece last summer entitled A Hard Dog to Keep on the Porch does a superb job of linking Clinton’s repellant lack of personal integrity to his success as a politician on whom much of the US ruling class can rely. [12] Sometimes, however, Hitchens takes up the right side of the right cause on a less than fully informed basis. In his Minority Report for The Nation of 31 March, 1997 Hitchens summarises the most recent efforts by the state of Pennsylvania to execute former Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, but only after declaring that he was ‘not prepared to say for certain that I think this defendant is innocent as charged’. [14] In his next column, Hitchens had to acknowledge that his neutrality on the question of guilt or innocence had been based on his not knowing that the prosecution had been unable to prove that Mumia had fired the revolver in his possession on the night of the murder of a Philadelphia police officer, or that the calibre of Mumia’s gun was 38mm, not 44mm like that of the bullet recovered from the policeman’s body. [15] In Hitchens’ journalism, political positions are sometimes as much a matter of striking the desired posture as of arguing from the available evidence.

Underlying politics: commitments and evasions

Looking beyond Cockburn’s and Hitchens’ week to week journalistic performances to their deeper political attitudes and commitments is not a straightforward matter. In capitalist society today – and nowhere more deceptively than in the US – journalists are expected to maintain a stance of professional ‘independence’ and ‘objectivity’, if not neutrality. ‘Radical’ journalists in particular are tolerated and accorded some degree of credibility only as long as they don’t openly identify themselves with an organised movement or party. This means that whatever broader allegiances they might hold or be inclined to advance, Cockburn and Hitchens have much more freedom to produce muckraking criticism and satire than they do to contribute towards building an identifiable political alternative.

This being said, it’s not clear just what sort of political alternative they think the rest of us should be building. Cockburn’s personal history links him to the politics of the Communist Party, and there are still moments in his writing – debating the number of people estimated to have perished in Stalin’s gulags, claiming that ‘the Brezhnev years were a Golden Age for the Soviet working class’ [16], when aspects of his father’s convictions can be glimpsed. But these days Cockburn conveys few illusions in, and no nostalgia for, the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. He sometimes writes openly as a Marxist, but as a Marxist with no positive and overarching political project in view. He consistently supports the rebuilding of the trade union movement and is passionately committed to defending the environment from corporate devastation, but he sees no larger political initiative that can connect and eventually achieve these objectives. Cockburn’s relation to Marxism is partial and, ultimately, contradictory: it grounds his fearless and revealing critique of capitalist society but provides no practical direction for even the beginnings of an organised counterforce.

All of this is evident in Cockburn’s The Golden Age is in Us, published by Verso in 1996. To be fair, the book is subtitled Journeys & Encounters and offers informal reminiscences, journal sketches, and conversations rather than sustained argument or analysis. Yet even reading the book on its own terms, one is struck by how little attention Cockburn gives to the prospects for a coherent and relevant Marxist politics today. In a series of entries responding to the 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev and the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union Cockburn comes closest to assessing the prospects for Marxism. Cockburn’s journal entries from late August 1991 reflect a lingering, half hearted attachment to the idea that some form of real, if flawed, communism was in its death throes. He quotes Lenin as saying in 1917:

’One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.’

That last line has always been one of my favorites, and I hope to be using it long after the last bust of the man Reagan insisted on calling Nokolai has been ground down to talcum powder. [17]

The trouble is that Cockburn understands Lenin’s maxim through a historical perspective distorted by Stalinist myth. Consider the following:

The Soviet Union defeated Hitler and fascism. Without it, the Cuban Revolution would never have survived, nor the Vietnamese. In the post-war years it was the counterweight to US imperialism and the terminal savageries of the old European colonial powers. It gave support to any country trying to follow an independent line. Without it, just such a relatively independent country as India could instead have taken a far more rightward course. Despite Stalin’s suggestion to Mao that he and his comrades settle for only half a country, the Chinese Revolution probably would not have survived either. [18]

Every sentence of this paragraph belies Cockburn’s political intelligence and represents a barrier to his asking the most important political questions. In what sense had either the Cuban or the Vietnamese revolutions survived by 1991? Was the Soviet Union a ‘counterweight to US imperialism’ or a rival imperialist power in its own right, imposing its own regimes of repression? Did the Soviet Union encourage or block the development of genuine socialist politics in India? Caught up in the terminal crisis of Stalinist Russia, and obviously appalled by a world increasingly dominated by US style market capitalism, Cockburn retreats to a backward looking defence of mythical Russian accomplishments.

Cockburn clearly felt in August of 1991 that the world had entered the era of ‘post-communism’. Just where this left him politically is indicated by his quoting a from Vietnamese intellectual Nguyen Khac Vien: ‘If a world front of capital is being founded, its counterweight, the democratic popular front on a world scale, is also in formation’. [19] This is where Cockburn was left by the collapse of the Soviet Union, with a nebulous global popular frontism.

It may still be where he would position himself today, were he to speak explicitly about his broader principles and perspectives. But what’s striking about The Golden Age is in Us is that Cockburn’s friends and correspondents are often more open about their political principles than he is. Consider the case of Cockburn’s friend Frank Bardacke. Bardacke raised key points in response to Cockburn’s column in an admirably straightforward way:

My own view is that the key error was the substitution of the party for the working class as the agent of history ... Lenin’s idea of the party was too undemocratic to nurture a revolutionary movement from the bottom. It was good for seizing power, but not for building revolutionary working class power. Trotsky later in his life, sometime in the 1930s, put it like this: ‘The Dictatorship of the Proletariat becomes the Dictatorship of the Party becomes the Dictatorship of the Central Committee becomes the Dictatorship of the Dictator.’ ... But if a Leninist party cannot nurture real revolutionary power among the people in a post-revolutionary world, we are in a bad fix. Because it seems very hard to achieve the first steps in a revolution (seizing state power) without one. I don’t know what to say to this.

There is of course much to say in response to Bardacke’s letter, about the relative size of the Russian working class between 1917 and the end of the civil war as it shaped the character and direction of the Bolshevik Party; about the savagery of the counter-revolution and the foreign invasions; about the failure of socialist revolutions to seize state power in Germany and elsewhere in Europe; about the eventual economic and political structure of a society which continued to call itself ‘socialist’ but was run by a privileged bureaucracy that is now busily accommodating itself to the brutality of market capitalism. But Cockburn says nothing about any of this. His friend’s questions, speculations, and worries are left hanging: no response, no agreement or disagreement, no answers.

Cockburn’s failure to comment on Bardacke’s quoting of Trotsky is symptomatic. ‘Robin [Blackburn] sends me a good quote from Trotsky,’ he writes in an earlier journal entry (17 April 1990), and then gives the rest of the entry over to a passage from The Revolution Betrayed in which Trotsky considers two hypotheses: one, ‘that the Soviet bureaucracy is overthrown by a revolutionary party having all the attributes of old Bolshevism’; two, that ‘a bourgeois party were to overthrow the ruling Soviet caste’. Trotsky concludes that in the second case, such a bourgeois party ‘would find no small number of ready servants among the present bureaucrats, administrators, technicians, directors, party secretaries and privileged upper circles ... a bourgeois restoration would probably have to clean out fewer people than a revolutionary party’. [20] Cockburn gives no indication of what he finds ‘good’ about Trotsky’s assessment. The initial judgment is encouraging, but the subsequent silence is significant, since it bears critically on Cockburn’s whole attitude towards the former Soviet Union and ‘actually existing socialism’.

Again and again in The Golden Age is in Us Cockburn poses questions fundamental to the rebuilding of a serious socialist alternative but refuses to stay for, or even entertain, a plausible socialist answer. In Washington Babylon he and Ken Silverstein embrace Hal Draper’s classic attack on the politics of ‘lesser evilism’ but advance no specific case for a broad based, organised response to the oppression and corruption they uncover. The gesture towards global popular frontism of 1991 survives in Cockburn’s lingering attraction to populist politics: in 1992 he supported former California Governor Jerry Brown’s call for a flat tax to replace the graduated income tax; he praises his California friend Bruce Anderson, 1994 candidate for Fifth District Supervisor in Mendocino County, as ‘a socialist in the populist style’; he admires Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota as a ‘principled populist’. [21] The sense of class division and class struggle that usually informs Cockburn’s journalism fades into the background the closer he gets to addressing the fundamental question of political organisation and rebuilding the left in the US.

While Cockburn’s political past is rooted in Communist Party politics, Hitchens was involved during the late 1960s and early 1970s with the International Socialists (forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain). And while Cockburn tends these days to be vague and elusive about his general view of Marxist politics, Hitchens comments more readily – usually with an air of knowing cynicism and condescension – on his youthful membership in the IS and on the current status of revolutionary socialism.

In the Bright Autumn of my Senescence is the title Hitchens gave to a piece published in the London Review of Books on 6 January 1994 – ostensibly a review of In the Heat of the Struggle: Twenty-Five Years of Socialist Worker and of Paul Foot’s Why You Should Join the Socialists. The basic narrative pattern of this piece is familiar in the autobiographies of former left activists. Disgusted by the war in Vietnam and the Labour government’s support for it, Hitchens was drawn to the IS when he was a student at Oxford because of its commitment to principled and open minded Marxist analysis and to concrete interventions in the class struggle wherever and whenever opportunities presented themselves. In 1968 he saw the group grow in size and confidence, the name of its paper change from Labour Worker to Socialist Worker, its links with the organised working class expand and deepen. But in the course of the 1970s, as the IS developed into the SWP (and as Hitchens began his travels in the US and his career as a full time journalist), he claims to have found his chosen party less open to intellectual debate, more inclined to opportunistic interventions and to misguided support for workers’ revolutionary self-activity (Portugal in 1975). So, with an ‘empty feeling’, he ‘quietly cancelled my membership and did a fade’.

Most of the historical points Hitchens attempts to make about the political development of the IS/SWP were effectively countered by Chris Harman and others who wrote in to the London Review of Books. There is more to say, though, about how this piece reflects upon Hitchens’ current politics. When he considers the collection of articles from Socialist Worker, Hitchens finds a great falling off from the days when he himself was ‘features editor’ of the paper:

Most of the stuff is pure ‘filler’, principally made up of exhortation and, of that exhortation, principally composed of crude syndicalist diatribe. Here is a record of strikes that didn’t come off, and of strikes that did while failing to make any difference. [22]

The problem here is not simply that Hitchens offers no commentary on any particular strike or industrial dispute from the 25 years covered by In the Heat of the Struggle. It is that Hitchens’s judgment is totally disconnected from the shifting political landscape through the 1970s and 1980s into the early 1990s, and from any concrete alternative perspective on how a socialist organisation that takes its work seriously ought to have related to and represented efforts by workers during these years to fight back against both the rising and waning tide of Thatcherism. Turning to Paul Foot’s Why You Should Join the Socialists, Hitchens is offended by Foot’s claim that ‘the economic and social system called capitalism’ is ‘run entirely by vampires’: ‘Not only does it make me cringe to read this in the bright autumn of my senescence, it would have made me cringe to read it when I was 17 or 18 and first started going to socialist meetings.’ [23]

Cringing comes easily to Hitchens. If he cringes at Foot’s use of a familiar and popular Gothic caricature, presumably he cringes – and cringed back in his hot socialist youth – at Marx’s attack in his inaugural address to the First International on capitalists opposed to the Ten Hour Bill: ‘British industry ... vampire like, could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood’. [24] Or at Marx’s argument in the Grundrisse that ‘capital obtains this ability [to incarnate itself in fleeting commodities and take on their form] only by constantly sucking in living labour as its soul, vampire like’. [25] It’s not just that Hitchens keeps a fastidious distance between himself and traditional socialist ways of imaging capitalist exploitation. It’s that he conveys no sympathy of any kind with the conviction that capitalism is a monstrous system, that it survives by parasitically appropriating living labour.

At the centre of Hitchens’s critical account of the international socialist movement is his belief that it has turned politically from Luxemburg towards Lenin. ‘The essential precepts descended from Luxemburg rather than Lenin,’ he writes in the London Review of Books article about ‘the group’ he joined in the late 1960s, but by 1975 the SWP’s response to the Portugese Revolution showed that ‘the comrades’ had ‘moved from Luxemburg to the worst of Lenin’. [26] The counterposing of Luxemburg and Lenin, the celebration of the former over the latter, is a familiar move by those who don’t want to come to grips with the hard practical questions of what it means to build a revolutionary party. More importantly, it distorts both the significant points of debate between Lenin and Luxemburg and the areas of fundamental and lasting agreement. You would never know from reading Hitchens, for example, that Luxemburg came to agree with Lenin on the necessity of building a revolutionary party, or that Lenin celebrates Luxemburg’s criticism of German leftist ‘parliamentarianism’ in ‘Left Wing’ Communism – an Infantile Disorder (1920).

The evasions and confusions in Hitchens’s account of his own relation to revolutionary socialist politics are relevant to what is sometimes disappointing in his journalistic writing. Consider, in this regard, a quite recent and extended piece in The New York Review of Books on Che Guevara. Hitchens does an effective job of distinguishing Guevara’s real political motivations and activities from the superficial exploitation of his popularity by interests ranging from the Cuban Ministry of Tourism to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. When it comes to assessing Guevara’s politics, however, Hitchens has recourse to the same misrepresentations of the Marxist political tradition that he relies on in rationalising his own history. To undermine the credibility of Guevara’s defence of improvised tribunals and executions during the Cuban Revolution (’Look, in this thing either you kill first, or else you get killed,’ he is quoted as having said to a former medical colleague), Hitchens cites Guevara’s belief in ‘democratic centralism’ and scoffs at Guevara’s favouring Lenin over Luxemburg on the question of internal party organisation. [27] In his discussion of ‘democratic centralism’ not a word is said about the class forces involved in the Cuban Revolution – about the fundamental differences between the Bolshevik Party in Russia of 1917 and the force that succeeded in overthrowing the Batista regime in Cuba in 1959. It’s this lack of clarity in basic political perspective that leads Hitchens on to a fatuous comparison between Guevara’s later political work and ‘Trotsky in exile’, and then to the defeatist conclusion that ‘the very element that gave [Guevara] his certainty and courage – his revolutionary communism – was also the element that condemned him to historical eclipse’. [28] No wonder this article is titled Goodbye to All That.

Radical journalists and the fight for a socialist alternative

Hitchens and Cockburn offer something rare in US journalism these days – a spirited left wing analysis of the ongoing ravages of US imperialism, of the growing economic inequality in the world’s richest nation, of the falling living standards for most workers, of the massive corruption from the top to the bottom of the political system. That they are able to provide this analysis for a national and international readership at a time when the US left remains weak and fragmented is extremely important. In the midst of the recent successful strike by the Teamsters against United Parcel Service, it was wonderful to see Cockburn returning to the opinions page of The Wall Street Journal (14 August 1997) and fiercely defending the union’s decision to take on one of the wealthiest and most politically powerful corporations in the country. But what does it mean that Cockburn was given this opportunity by one of the bosses’ premier media giants – by a newspaper that for months had been conducting an attack on the Teamsters and its president, Ron Carey? Would the Wall Street Journal have printed Cockburn’s piece if it had linked the UPS strike and the revival of the US labour movement explicitly to the project of building a militantly anti-capitalist, pro-worker socialist party in the US?

The constraints and limitations I’m talking about are not entirely a matter of what the capitalist press will and will not allow to appear in its profitable pages. In their distinctive ways, Cockburn and Hitchens delight in their roles as rogue journalists, as displaced mavericks from Britain who are allowed to entertain as well as inform and provoke their readers by taking a caustic look at a ruling class more than confident enough (at the moment) to tolerate such ‘freedom of the press’. At the same time, there is a peculiarly American tradition of independent radical journalism that has made possible, in Cockburn’s case more than in Hitchens’s, the fashioning of a not altogether unfamiliar identity and career. In many respects the model for CounterPunch is I.F. Stone’s Weekly, despite Cockburn’s critical comments on Stone near the beginning of The Golden Age is in Us. Stone, an intrepid civil libertarian, revealed a lot of ruling class dirt and brutality in his day, and in the process certainly gave encouragement to movements on the left. But even during the Vietnam War Stone didn’t contribute substantially to the building of an organisation, party, or movement. And he was certainly not a Marxist.

Do Cockburn and Hitchens think of themselves as Marxists? Cockburn does, I believe; Hitchens probably doesn’t. The point to emphasise is that in Cockburn’s case as well as in Hitchens’s, the crucial link in Marxist politics between analysis and practice, between critical participation in a society and militant intervention to transform that society, has been attenuated and in some respects broken. Of course, radical journalism itself is a form of practice and intervention. But such journalism can never meet the test of a genuine Marxist politics as long as it holds itself aloof from organising a movement and building a party.

To give a critical assessment of Cockburn’s and Hitchens’s broader political perspectives, particularly of their often averted and defensive relation to any kind of organised socialist politics, is by no means to minimise the importance of their work as journalists. Nor is it to overlook the practical pressures on professional journalists operating today in the US – or in other countries for that matter. It is instead to make clear how distant even the best radical journalism in the US is from the project of mobilising political power from below according to a consistent socialist analysis and set of organising principles and objectives. Socialists have long read Cockburn and Hitchens with interest and admiration. We will no doubt continue to do so. But we should take every opportunity to argue with them, to make the case that the best contributions to coming struggles will be made by members of the best revolutionary socialist party workers can build.


1. Interview with Sasha Abramsky in The Progressive, February 1997, p. 32.

2. Ibid., p. 34.

3. The Nation, 5 May 1997, pp. 9–10.

4. The Nation, 9 June 1997, p. 23.

5. A. Cockburn and K. Silverstein, Washington Babylon (London 1996), p. ix.

6. Ibid., p. 99.

7. The Nation, 28 April 1997, p. 9.

8. C. Hitchens, For the Sake of Argument, pp. 89–91; the piece originally appeared in The Nation, May 1991.

9. Ibid., pp. 96–98; originally in The Nation, February 1989.

10. C. Hitchens, Bill and Dick’s Excellent Adventure (a review of D. Morris, Behind the Oval Office: Winning the Presidency in the Nineties), London Review of Books, 20 February 1997, p. 25.

11. C Hitchens, National Treasure, London Review of Books, 14 November 1996, pp. 19–20.

12. London Review of Books, 6 June 1996, pp. 3–7.

13. Vanity Fair, March 1997, pp. 88–96. [Note by ETOL: There is no indication in the text referring to this footnote.]

14. The Nation, 31 March 1997, p. 8.

15. The Nation, 14 April 1997, p. 8.

16. A. Cockburn, The Golden Age is in Us: Journeys & Encounters (London 1996), p. 226.

17. Ibid., p. 225.

18. Ibid., p. 226.

19. Ibid., pp. 227–228. The reference in this entry to Claud Cockburn’s memoir is as follows: ‘My father often talked to me about the If Only fallacy. Discussing the pact between the Soviet Union and Germany in 1939, he wrote in his memoir, Crossing the Line, “Nobody can judge whether an historical event, an order to an army, a diplomatic manoeuvre, was a catastrophe or otherwise unless he is prepared to say at the same time what would have happened if that thing had not happened. And since nobody is in a position honestly to make such a statement about what the alternative would have been, the question is in the nature of things unanswerable and otiose.’

20. Ibid., p. 242.

21. Ibid., p. 401. For Cockburn’s work with University of California economist Robert Pollin in support of a flat tax proposal, see The Golden Age is in Us, pp. 281–282. For Cockburn on Wellstone, see The Nation, 25 November 1996, p. 9. See also Cockburn’s 1988 journal entry on the American Populist Party in 1892: ‘With the end of the Populists came [quoting Lawrence Goodwyn] “the last substantial effort at a structural alteration of hierarchical economic forms in modern America”’ (The Golden Age is in Us, pp. 48–49). In response to a recent question submitted through the Ask Alex news group on the Nation On Line, Cockburn replied, ‘Not sure what you mean by socialism from below. These days, I’m heading into redneck populism I suppose.’ Thanks to Anthony Arnove for this last reference.

22. Ibid., p. 18.

23. Ibid., p. 18.

24. K. Marx (edited by D. Fernbach), The First International and After: Political Writings, ed. David Fernbach (Penguin 1974), III, p. 79.

25. K. Marx, Grundrisse (Penguin 1973), p. 646.

26. London Review of Books, 6 January 1994, p. 18.

27. The New York Review of Books, 17 July 1997, p. 22.

28. Ibid., p. 23.

Top of page

ISJ 2 Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 21.4.2012