Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 1, 2007

Alexander Cockburn gets Spiked

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:28 pm

Last June in a commentary on Alexander Cockburn’s global warming denialism, I mentioned that Zbigniew Jaworowski, one of his “experts”, had written for Spiked Online as well as Lyndon Larouche’s magazine “21st Century Science & Technology”. Like Lyndon Larouche, Frank Furedi, the top guy at Spiked Online, was once a Trotskyist politician. There are no illusions that Larouche has any connections to the left nowadays, but our boy Alexander still has trouble understanding that Furedi broke his ties to the left as well. In the latest issue of the Nation Magazine, he has an attack on recycling (unfortunately only available to subscribers) that starts as follows:

Two years ago some smart leftists here put together an event called the Battle of Ideas, and the mix of provocative themes, well-run panels and competent speakers worked out well. I was invited to speak at a couple of sessions in the third Battle at the end of October and was happy to find its organizers threading a sane course past the rocks on which left-organized confabs usually founder: viz., endless mastication of the obvious, marked disinclination to address any new ideas, overblown preachments to the converted. In fact, on the surface at least, this didn’t seem like a particularly “left” affair, which probably explains why that weekend a thousand people were milling around the Royal College of Art, next to the Albert Hall.

One might assume that Alexander had about as much curiosity in uncovering the origins of the conference he spoke at as he did in finding out about Zbigniew Jaworowski’s long-standing connections to Larouche. If he once conjured up images of an intrepid investigative reporter, now he seems more like the dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party:

“The Dormouse is asleep again,” said the Hatter, and he poured a little hot tea upon its nose.

The Dormouse shook its head impatiently, and said, without opening its eyes, “Of course, of course; just what I was going to remark myself.”

Now if I had been invited to speak at the Battle of Ideas conference in London, the first thing I would want to know is who was running it. As it turns out, I have been keeping track of the organizers for over 10 years at least–now affiliated with Spiked Online–and would like first of all to disabuse Alexander of the notion that they have any connection to the left–at least any left that normal people would want to be associated with. You have to ask yourself what kind of “leftists” would cosponsor events with the public relations firm Hill-Knowlton as they have in the past.

Hill-Knowlton: friends of Alexander’s new friends

Among the conferences cosponsored by Spiked and Hill-Knowlton was something on “The Future of Energy” that included Spiked online contributor Joe Kaplinsky worrying about “a crisis mentality overplays the actual problem of global warming; and on the other hand, this sensitivity to risk limits our ability to explore energy alternatives.” Just like Zbigniew Jaworowski, Kaplinsky believed that Chernobyl had “led to an increase in public sensitivity rather than an actual increase in risk, yet it hindered the nuclear option dramatically.”

Although the people involved with Spiked are by no means as nutty or as dangerous as Larouche, they agree with the American cult that the environmentalist movement is a threat to progress. How Spiked evolved in this direction is a lesson in the hazards of an undialectical approach to Marx’s writings, especially those sections of the Communist Manifesto that stand in awe of the achievements of the bourgeoisie. If it made sense after a fashion to consider the unification of the nation-state through railroads and telegraphs as a first step in creating the objective conditions for socialist revolution, it is simply madness to provide public relations–either paid or unpaid–for the corporations that Hill-Knowlton shills for.

A Hill-Knowlton client

Although Hill-Knowlton’s clients include some of the sleaziest corporations in the world, including McDonald’s, their most famous client was the US government that hired them to promote support for the first war against Iraq. They worked closely with the Citizens for a Free Kuwait, one of whose members testified before Congress: “I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital. While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where . . . babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”

We know now that this was all a lie. Nothing like this ever happened.

Once upon a time, the people around Spiked would have been on the forefront exposing such disinformation. One of them, in fact, spoke alongside Alexander as he reports:

One panel I eagerly attended, “Recycling Is a Waste of Time,” featured a German, Thomas Deichmann, describing the insane recycling regulations now beleaguering the citizenry of Frankfurt. The case for efficient incineration, he asserted, was overwhelming. Most recycling is an utter waste of time, economically unsound and without benefit for the environment. “We should,” he counseled urbanely, “be thinking of more interesting things.”

Deichmann once made an important contribution to exposing Hill-Knowlton type lies during the war in Bosnia. At the time, he and the other Spiked contributors were putting out a magazine called LM (which stood for Living Marxism, a philosophy that they were already starting to ditch) that took a strong position against Nato intervention. Deichmann wrote an article proving that the Bosnian Muslims were not being kept in a concentration camp, as Independent Television News (ITN) had alleged. So enraged was ITN by LM’s challenge to accepted orthodoxy that they sued the magazine for libel and won in a British court, where laws tend to favor the plaintiff. This forced LM to shut down and when it reappeared as Spiked Online, there was no effort to represent it as Marxist, either living or dead.

For the most part, Alexander’s complaints about recycling stem from the kind of curmudgeonly, contrarian stance that he has been perfecting for the past 10 years or so. It shares Spiked Online’s libertarian and individualistic values, but not their enthusiasm for unbridled capitalist growth, which is for the most part indistinguishable from the Cato Institute.

In his flirtation with the populist right in the US, Alexander is somewhat coy about drawing hard lines between their beliefs and his own. One imagines that he finds the same thing seductive about Spiked Online, which is also cultivating ties to the right. Most of the Spiked contributors are cagey about their pro-capitalist convictions, which might have the effect of frightening off possible future collaboration with a useful idiot like Alexander Cockburn.

If Alexander had taken the trouble to delve a little further into the writings of the crew that was now the apple of his eye, he would have discovered jewels such as this bit of public relations (paid or unpaid?) on behalf of a Hill-Knowlton client:

The king of fast food was Ray Kroc, who realised that the restaurant set up by the McDonald brothers in California in the Fifties would fit in with the American desire to eat out, but without the formality that Europeans were used to. He worked with, then bought out, the brothers and through a ruthless approach to sales and a thoroughly efficient operation, McDonald’s gave people quick, cheap, tasty food and revolutionised the food business.

I guess if contrarianism is your cup of tea, then why not write love poems to the toxic fast food giant. Speaking only for myself, I’d rather get water-boarded than pimp for McDonald’s. There was a time when Alexander might have been able to sniff out what lurked beneath the “leftist” surface of a publication like Spiked, especially when Counterpunch was cheering on Jose Bove only 6 years ago:

Bove didn’t gain international attention until August of 1999, when he and three of his compatriots, armed with a tractor, pick axes and chainsaws, attacked and destroyed a McDonald’s under construction in his hometown of Millau. Bove denounced McDonald’s as purveyors of la malbouffe (bad beef). He said that McDonald’s was merely a symptom of a larger problem, global corporations forcing genetically engineered or processed foods down the throats of unwilling farmers and consumers. “The WTO and the corporations are telling us what to eat.” Bove said. “In France, no one agrees with this.

Well, who knows? Maybe Alexander will come around to Spiked Online’s zest for McDonald’s. I have seen stranger things in politics, especially from Nation Magazine writers. Just take a look at Christopher Hitchens.


  1. As you imply, Alex has been flirting with the populist right for quite some time, so this latest mess of his hardly surprises me. Some years back, he was trying to convince us all that the militia movement had potential as an ally, that they weren’t all white supremist. As if the populist right would be real obvious in such sympathies with a white journalist if they thought they had any chance of “playing” him, or making him their boy. There may well be militias that don’t contain a racist component, but the fact remains that in the United States, when white people band together and talk about defending themselves with firearms, other white people are okay with it. But when black people do it, we are seen as public enemies or menaces to the peace, or nutcases. But self-defense is usually seen as rational in white folks. And that’s the part Alex never got. And when
    Adolph Reed called him out on it, Alex dismissed him as a fool. And it’s true, none of us know everything. But black people for the most part know what our experience with white people who form gun clubs in this country has been, and Alex Cockburn doesn’t. But in this case, as with every other, he’ll go on strutting as though he does.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — December 2, 2007 @ 1:41 pm

  2. It’s bad enough when our favorite Left wing Journalist is becoming inconsistent like this. This is truly sad.I admire him tremendously. I nowadays read him with caution. The great thing is He is still capable of fantastic writing now and then.
    I hear he was real big in the 1980s.I didn’t know him back then because there was no Internet.

    Comment by Jit — December 2, 2007 @ 4:59 pm

  3. There are a lot of right-left crossovers these days. The right, for some reason, was quicker to react against the Iraq war than the left (The Nation version of the Left). I even subscribed to The American Conservative for a year because I noticed so much sound anti-war writing coming from there.

    Now Ron Paul, who is farther right than Pat Buchanan, is making the anti-imperialist, anti-militarist position visible again.

    I’m puzzled by this, and reluctant to condemn someone like Paul outright because he also holds ridiculous positions on taxation and the gold standard. I’m not even sure they are ridiculous. The same applies to Cockburn. Counterpunch is an uneven but useful magazine. I first read important articles by Virginia Tilley and Prof. Michael Neumann there. Since I am not a theoretical Marxist, contrarianism is not that far from the anti-capitalist, anti-liberal democracy positions I do hold. And, after all, Cockburn IS different from Hitchens.

    I have heard Marxists say the only correct,or most important, left stance now is opposition to imperialism. That allows for a lot of strange bedfellows.

    Comment by plato's cave — December 2, 2007 @ 5:35 pm

  4. Spiked Online’s problem is not that it backs imperialist wars. It is rather that they back the right of imperialism to do business everywhere in the world without interference by NGO’s or any other grass roots organization that decides, for example, that deforestation is not a good idea. If you don’t have an analysis of eco-imperialism, then you don’t have an analysis of imperialism that is worth anything.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 2, 2007 @ 8:42 pm

  5. I’d still class Furedi on the left, albeit the neo-liberal hawkish left. What marks them from their compatriots on the right is these still pretend to have a social conscience.

    Comment by a very public sociologist — December 2, 2007 @ 11:44 pm

  6. I don’t think there is anything “hawkish” about Frank Furedi. In fact, there are still some decent antiwar and anti-imperialist material from time to time on Spiked, especially articles by David Chandler:


    But when it comes to the “benefits” of capitalist development, they are worse than Thomas Friedman.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 2, 2007 @ 11:54 pm

  7. The Spiked Online group is making money from their position. They probably are richer than Jack Barnes. People like Cockburn and Hitchens, make money from speaking engagements. By taking a right turn there is $$ involved.

    I think Hitch’s turn against religion is to get some left speaking engagements back.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — December 3, 2007 @ 12:45 am

  8. Indeed, I still read Spiked Online because of their anti-war and anti-imperialist articles, which tend to be fairly well-written and argued, even if they always fall back on one of their central theses that ‘there is something culturally and socially wrong with the West’ to explain, say, American imperialism in Iraq. One of the better recent articles took Niall Ferguson to task for his latest crapfest ‘War of the World’ and essentially argued that his historical stance is both negative and racist.

    As for Cockburn, well, his writings are so incoherent on climate change that they do little but make me respect someone like George Monbiot even more.

    Comment by cain devera — December 9, 2007 @ 11:10 pm

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