Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 28, 2008

Cockburn contrarianism

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn — louisproyect @ 8:15 pm

As many of you are no doubt aware, Alexander Cockburn has cultivated the image of contrarian for many years now. This is the stock-in-trade of both Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens, at least when he was part of the left. To outrage a reader serves the same purpose as a shock jock steaming up a listener; it is money in the bank. The philosophy seems to be “I don’t care what people say about me, as long as they are saying something.”

I suppose that it was only a matter of time before Alexander hooked up with Spiked Online, a group of ex-radicals who used to be known as the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) in Great Britain in the 1980s and 90s and who were also past masters of contrarianism. Led by a sociology professor named Frank Furedi, they are now responsible for a website called Spiked Online that is meant to outrage but barely causes a stir nowadays, at least on the left. After they reconfigured themselves as Cato Institute type libertarians, the average reaction would be something like “So Spiked is for nuclear power, what else is new? Dog bites man?” Of course, if you defend such positions using Marxist jargon, it will get a stir from self-declared Marxists like me.

Alexander shares Spiked Online’s outlook on global warming, as a conspiracy of fear-mongering environmentalists standing in the way of “progress”, which to most reasonable people seems to be mostly about corporate profits. Ten years ago when the RCP railed against the Green movement, it was in the name of the Communist Manifesto. After all, if Marx said that the bourgeoisie has played a most revolutionary role, who would want to stand in the way of an onslaught on feudal values. From the perspective of the RCP, the tree-huggers were trying to turn back the clock to the Dark Ages and who wants to live with the bubonic plague and outdoor plumbing.

James Heartfield: Spiked Online’s resident Marxist

Crucial to both Alexander and Spiked Online–even today–is the notion that global warming alarmism is a conspiracy against developing countries. Even though Spiked Online organizes conferences with some of the most vicious corporate sharks known to mankind, they still have the chutzpah to talk out of the left side of their mouth. James Heartfield, one of the few remaining self-avowed Marxists affiliated with Spiked Online, is a past master of carrying the banner of the global poor. In a December 18, 2007 article he writes:

The new climate deal struck at Bali seems to be about letting First World countries offset their industrial growth by persuading less developed countries to forego growth, and enlarge their forest reserves instead. In effect the West will use its financial leverage to keep the natives sitting in darkness and its own monopoly on technology intact.

I have to chuckle about the reference to “natives sitting in darkness”. This is utterly shameless but in keeping with the Spiked Online worldview. For them, “growth” is nothing but capitalist growth but they don’t quite have the guts to actually come out and use the words. In an odd way, they remind me of how the word “capitalism” was hardly ever used in the early 1960s. The preferred words were “free enterprise”. To use the word “capitalism” suggested that you were some kind of commie since it was commies who turned it into a dirty word. With the advent of neo-conservatism, the word capitalism has been dusted off and put on a pedestal. Who knows, with the way things have been going lately with home foreclosures, it might be put back into the closet.

If you go to the Spiked Online website, you will see an article by Alexander Cockburn titled “Intellectual blasphemy: the witch-hunting of a climate change sceptic“. “Witch-hunting” is a reference to articles written by George Monbiot and to a lesser extent by me. While I don’t have Monbiot’s clout, I do have credibility with the hard-core revolutionary left. For reasons known only to Cockburn, he has decided to stick his thumb in our eye by hanging out with Spiked Online (while curiously never referring to their sponsorship of a talk he gave recently in London) and by holding up a regular contributor to Lydon Larouche’s slimy journal as an authority on global warming. (It is brimming with global warming denialism, paeans to nuclear power–all couched in Larouche’s bizarre mixture of the New Deal and fascist-type demagogy.)

In the course of restating his views on global warming, Alexander demonstrates a certain discomfort with his critics on the left:

There was a shocking intensity to their self-righteous fury, as if I had transgressed a moral as well as an intellectual boundary and committed blasphemy. I sometimes think to myself, ‘Boy, I’m glad I didn’t live in the 1450s’, because I would be out in the main square with a pile of wood around my ankles. I really feel that; it is remarkable how quickly the hysterical reaction takes hold and rains down upon those who question the consensus.

This experience has given me an understanding of what it must have been like in darker periods to be accused of being a blasphemer; of the summary and unpleasant consequences that can bring. There is a witch-hunting element in climate catastrophism. That is clear in the use of the word ‘denier’ to label those who question claims about anthropogenic climate change. ‘Climate change denier’ is, of course, meant to evoke the figure of the Holocaust denier. This was contrived to demonise sceptics. The past few years show clearly how mass moral panics and intellectual panics become engendered.

My suggestion to Alexander is to find some other line of work if he doesn’t like being on the receiving end of a sharp polemical attack. Indeed, for somebody who is associated with a newsletter called “Counterpunch”, he seems rather delicate in the face of a well-placed jab. Has Alexander become flabby in his old age? One can certainly understand how the life of a country gentleman in Northern California might have taken off the edge he once had. If “summary and unpleasant consequences” are too much of a cross to bear, perhaps he might consider writing about food and wine. There is a large market for such journalism as I understand it.

Agrees with Alexander Cockburn on how to avoid another Virginia Tech

For another example of Alexander’s shock jock mentality, you can also turn to an article he wrote shortly after the shootings at Virginia Tech. His recommendation? If the students had been properly armed, the tragedy would have been averted:

The answer is to disband SWAT teams and kindred military units, and return to the idea of voluntary posses or militias: a speedy assembly of citizen volunteers with their own weapons. Such a body at Columbine or Virginia Tech might have saved many lifes [sic]. In other words: make the Second Amendment live up to its promise.

If Alexander found Spiked Online to be a kindred spirit when it comes to global warming, he found another strange bedfellow in ultraright rock musician Ted Nugent who blamed gun control laws on the slaughter:

Pray for the families of victims everywhere, America. Study the methodology of evil. It has a profile, a system, a preferred environment where victims cannot fight back. Embrace the facts, demand upgrade and be certain that your children’s school has a better plan than Virginia Tech or Columbine. Eliminate the insanity of gun-free zones, which will never, ever be gun-free zones. They will only be good guy gun-free zones, and that is a recipe for disaster written in blood on the altar of denial. I, for one, refuse to genuflect there.

In making the case for posses, Cockburn brings up a law that might appear obscure to Counterpunch readers, although he used to raise it with some frequency in the 1980s when he was flirting with the militias in Montana, Michigan and elsewhere:

The left complain about SWAT teams, but doesn’t see that the progressives bear a lot of responsibility for their rise. If you confer the task of social invigilation and protection to professional janissaries–cops — and deny the right of self and social protection to ordinary citizens, you end up with crews of over-armed thugs running amok under official license, terrorizing the disarmed citizens. In the end you have the whole place run by the Army or the federalized National Guard, as is increasingly evident now with the overturning of the Posse Comitatus laws forbidding any role for the military in domestic law enforcement.

The Posse Comitatus laws were passed by Congress in 1878 and as Alexander points out were intended to forbid “any role for the military in domestic law enforcement”. Overturning this law would open the door to military dictatorship as he points out in another Counterpunch article, in this case referring to police brutality during the Seattle protests in 2000:

What happened in Washington was a replay of similar cop mayhem in Seattle last December. It’s now emerged that a big factor in cop violence was the US Army’s Delta Force ­ whose presence in Seattle was a clear violation of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, forbidding the US military any role in domestic law enforcement. This ban is increasingly a dead letter. The Delta Force was at Waco and came to Seattle under the pretext that there might be terrorist bio-chem assaults.

I never paid much attention to Alexander’s harping on the Posse Comitatus law of 1878 except to note that an ultrarightist named Gordon Kahl ran a would-be fascist outfit called Posse Comitatus in the early 1980s. He and his followers believed that they had the right to withhold their taxes from a Federal Government that they labeled as a “Synagogue of Satan under the 2nd plank of the Communist Manifesto.” Sigh, if only that were true.

It was only yesterday that I discovered the meaning of the 1878 Posse Comitatus law that Alexander holds close to his bosom. Indeed, the year that it was passed by Congress is a dead giveaway.

T.J. Stiles’s “Jesse James” is a masterful study of the outlaw that places him in the context of the Civil War and Reconstruction. While it is not made much of in the typical Hollywood film on the U.S.’s most famous old west bandit, including the latest starring Brad Pitt, Jesse James was a so-called “bushwhacker”. The bushwhackers were pro-slavery guerrillas operating in Missouri, a state that permitted slavery until the beginning of the Civil War. In James’s first train robbery, his gang wore Ku Klux Klan hoods. Stiles’s draws upon many scholarly accounts of the period to make his case that Jesse James was basically a white supremacist, including Eric Foner’s 500 page book on Reconstruction.

In the penultimate chapter titled “Assassins” that describes James’s last fling at robbery before he was killed by Robert Ford, there’s an account of an abortive attempt to arrest the bandit in his hideout in Kentucky. A posse led by a U.S. Marshal named W.S. Overton had tracked Jesse James down and was all set to storm the farmhouse where he and his brother lied in wait. But at the last minute, the lawmen withdrew. It turns out that they could not get an arrest warrant from local authorities. Here is Stiles’s explanation for the failure:

Thoroughly stymied, Overton went back to Major W.R. King of the army engineers; King promptly applied to Washington for troops to make the arrest. The matter landed on the desk of President Garfield himself, who referred it to the attorney general—who said that no soldiers would be forthcoming. He cited the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 (actually a rider attached to an army appropriations bill). Passed at the insistence of resurgent anti-Reconstruction Democrats [like Jesse James himself], the act prohibited the use of the military in law enforcement, except in cases of insurrection. The law largely stripped the federal government of its police powers.

In other words, the Posse Comitatus law was designed to help turn the South into a terror state run by the Ku Klux Klan. One of the main goals of the Democrats and the Liberal Republicans in the 1876 election was rapprochement with the plantation-owners who would be solid allies in the persecution and super-exploitation of the freed slaves. In order to make this happen, it was necessary to keep the Federal Army out of the South.

It must be said that Jesse James was completely aware of the political fights taking place over the South’s future. When he decided to rob the Northfield Bank in Minnesota in 1876, the target was selected with the understanding that Adelbert Ames was an bank officer. Adelbert Ames was the son-in-law of General Benjamin Butler, one of the leading military men who were committed to ending racist violence during Reconstruction. Adelbert Ames was a northern General in the Civil War himself and appointed by Congress to be provisional Governor of Mississippi in 1868.

One might have hoped that Alexander Cockburn would have thought a bit about the usefulness of campaigning for the protection of the Posse Comitatus law in light of this history. While we share his concerns about the growing threat of authoritarianism in the U.S., it does not seem to be a good idea to make this bill which helped turn the South into a concentration camp run by the Ku Klux Klan a kind of litmus test for the left.

What is needed above all is a resistance to capitalist injustice and police state infringements on our rights that is based on clear thinking and solid class-based principles. Given Alexander’s recent drifting, one might hope that he reevaluate the usefulness of the shock jock approach to politics. It might generate lots of heat, but not very much light.


  1. I saw an interview with Cockburn on CSPAN which included a tour of his Northern California ranch. During the tour, he showed off his vintage gas-hog and professed his undying love for driving it all over. I’ve been suspicious ever since that his “skepticism” on global warming had something to do with his reluctance to give up that old heap.

    Comment by Linda J — January 28, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

  2. While I agree that denying anthropogenic climate change at this stage is rather silly given the evidence, I think there is a certain amount of truth about the good of nuclear power, the fact that the “advanced” countries are making use of global warming and trading schemes to impose limits on growth of the third world, and the fact that many environmentalists are outright reactionaries, trying to turn back the wheel of history, and motivated by a quasi-religious zeal about the impurity of man and technology and the inherent goodness of nature. Most of my leftist friends seem to strongly disagree on these issues with me though, and have taken not to argue them any more, so maybe I am the one who is out of sync.

    Comment by David — January 28, 2008 @ 9:57 pm

  3. You hit the right notes here – militia slobbering, crank science championing, peevishness – though you did miss the “anti-religious bigotry” Huckabee-love that was it for me – no more. Now, he has a right to think himself courageous for his past work, he can point with pride to various championings, and we should be over trying to find uniform worthiness in putative “leaders” – but does this mean that the old Left is officially dead?

    Comment by Martin — January 29, 2008 @ 12:20 am

  4. And then there’s his fearmongering about SSRIs. Here’s a representative piece:


    The space devoted to this dilettantism is unbelievable:


    Comment by Zach — January 29, 2008 @ 12:48 am

  5. “It might generate lots of heat, but not very much light.”

    Spot on.

    Comment by Damian — January 29, 2008 @ 1:47 am

  6. Does Spiked have any number of members?

    The history of the Posse Comitatus, was fascinating.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — January 29, 2008 @ 7:29 am

  7. Spiked doesn’t have members as such, but I would estimate the number of people who are involved with the project overall to be about 100 or so.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 29, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

  8. Hunter S. Thompson wrote in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “Old elephants limp off to the hills to die; old Americans go out to the highway and drive themselves to death with huge cars.”

    Comment by Mark — January 29, 2008 @ 3:53 pm

  9. Nice work again.

    I was never able to figure out the arm-everyone position with regards to Virginia Tech. Calling for students to arm themselves is a recipe for mass murder – imagine drunk frat boys at parties armed with sawed off shotties, .22s, .45s, etc and you get an idea of how that could end up. Or worse yet you could have shootouts between rival frats, rival football teams, and college football/basketball game celebrations would trigger a National Guard activation.

    Iraq is a great case of why the “arm everyone” position is not a good idea. And I say the above as a revolutionary who understands us workers have to use force to get rid of the capitalist state if we’re going to get to socialism.

    Comment by Binh — January 29, 2008 @ 7:28 pm

  10. There’s also Cockburn’s water carrying for Scientology- he’s run more than a few pieces that have a pro-scientology slant (Ie, “Yay Tom Cruise for taking on Big Pharma!”). Apparently, this stems from some vendetta he has against the guy who wrote the big Time Scientology expose 16 years ago.

    Comment by Dan Coyle — January 30, 2008 @ 5:38 pm

  11. […] Comment: Cockburn contrarianism […]

    Pingback by » Cockburn on GW?? — January 31, 2008 @ 7:47 pm

  12. Ted Nugent looks a lot like Jimmy Buffett.

    Comment by Richard McLaughlin — February 1, 2008 @ 9:23 am

  13. Cockburn likes to be an asshole. that’s what I get out of him anyway.

    Comment by Graeme — February 3, 2008 @ 7:19 am

  14. Good job Proyect. As someone who lives in the same neck of the woods as Cockburn and even had the privilege of seeing him speak in person on one occasion, I can attest to the fact that he and his notorious buddy Bruce Anderson, publisher of the local weekly “Anderson Valley Advertiser”, is someone who is, to a lesser extent than his aforementioned colleague, drifting to the right politically in a Christopher Hithcens way, even though he denies that and professes to be offended by the characterization. The most blatant example of this being how, under the guise of mockery of hippies and latte liberals, he and Anderson provided political cover for the FBI and the timber bosses by concocting a bullshit story that Judi Bari was actually bombed by her ex-husband in an act of domestic violence and not by right wing forces allied with the logging industry whose ire had been stirred up to a fever pitch by the antics of Earth First. This story, unsupported by any evidence, was not merely concocted to embarass a personal enemy, but to trivialize and cover up the Redwood Summer protests and the right wing counter mobilizations that occurred at that time, the incubus of the real perpetrator(s).

    The Anderson-Cockburn clique are fast becoming classic psuedo-leftist 5th Columnists out to, in the words of National Review, “demoralize the Left” in a manner that shows little restraint or decency in the level of personal attacks that they are willing to stoop to in building themselves and their brand of right-tilted scandal mongering tabloid journalism up. But then again, Mussolini was at one time an ultra-left newspaper publisher, a demogogue of some sophistication who was brought forward when the Limbaughs and O’Reilly of his day became too crude and transparent for the radicalizing masses.

    Comment by Tom Cod — July 8, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

  15. It’s sad. I used to really admire Cockburn. I really enjoyed his Corruptions of Empire written in the Reagan ‘error’. I thought it was charming that he also wrote in Home and Garden and the Wall Street Journal while at the same time promoting what seemed to me great radical causes with such wit and charm. I felt the same about Hitchens as he drifted to the right.
    I am not ready to write either one of them off completely but I do hope they come back to their senses. Maybe Alex will buy a used prius and be converted….or not.

    Comment by Ed — March 31, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

  16. Here’s a resource on Spiked and its sister bodies…


    Comment by Simon — January 8, 2011 @ 7:33 pm

  17. […] eens onderbouwd met figuren uit de klimaatsceptische wereld met erg foute connecties en ideeën, zoals Louis Proyect aantoonde. Dat Cockburn hiermee leurde, sierde hem niet. Dat hij weigerde om terwille van de lieve vrede ter […]

    Pingback by Alexander Cockburn (1941-2012) – een stem die ertoe deed en doet « Rooieravotr — July 22, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

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