Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 3, 2015

Alexander Cockburn on chess and geopolitics

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,chess — louisproyect @ 7:59 pm

Last week not long after Jeff St. Clair received my article in “Chess as Metaphor”, he wrote me back informing me that Alexander Cockburn had written a book about chess in the 1970s. Since chess and Cockburn were two of my passions, I immediately ordered the book from Amazon.com and began reading it. The book is not about “how to win with the Ruy Lopez Opening” but about the politics and psychology of chess players, including some of the most famous like Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Botvinnik, the Russian champion who gets discussed in a chapter titled “Proletarian, Socialist Chess”. You can imagine how that chapter piqued my interest. As it turns out, there is a section in it that deals with geopolitics and chess, a subject I referred to briefly in my CounterPunch article. Cockburn has a somewhat different take on their relationship but we come pretty close to converging around his idea that “No game model, such as chess, can in the end tolerate the notion of total contradiction, since all games accept the idea of rules.” Like so many articles in this vein, Pepe Escobar referred to chess in his Oct. 1 article titled “Obama, Putin: Checkmate”. But if there is anything that Syria symbolizes, it is the contradictory nature of geopolitics—one in which Israel, the USA, Iran and Russia are working together to one degree or another to prop up the rotting cadaver of Baathism. Since the war in Syria was always supposed to be a proxy war with Israel and the USA playing black and Russia and Iran playing white, how do you explain this new axis of resistance with Netanyahu and Obama joining the axis of resistance? Maybe if chess was played with a much larger board and the pieces came in 50 shades of gray, the analogy would hold.

Alexander Cockburn:


“We play poker, they play chess” used to be the adage at one school for international relations in the United States. It was also, it seems, a favored phrase of President Kennedy. The thought behind the words was that the Communist enemy, in all his Oriental cunning, had a strategy thoroughly conceived and inherently rational: move would be countered by move; and uncertainty and chance eliminated. “We,” on the other hand, play poker “We” gamble and bluff.

As we have seen, the emphasis on the enemy’s playing chess has a venerable ancestry in high and low art. But where the little maxim about chess and poker goes seriously wrong is in the supposition that “our side” is not interested in conceiving of war or diplomacy in chess terms. In ancient and in modern times the very opposite has been the case. We have seen that legend has chess being invented as a rehearsal or exemplar of war. There are innumerable examples of generals and statesmen expressing enthusiasm for chess, and their suggestion that their own trade is simply conducted on a larger board. In the popular imagination, mirroring such sentiments, international affairs are often conceived in terms of chess imagery. Hardly an issue of Punch magazine in the nineteenth century was complete without a cartoon of “the chessboard of Europe” simulating the play of policy and maneuver.

The July 1972 issue of Foreign Affairs contained an attack by Stanley Hoffman on balance-of-power theories such as those proposed by Henry Kissinger. Hoffman’s purpose was to denounce the equilibrium model of five superstates (the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Japan and the European Economic Community).

To use Raymond Aron’s terms, the balance of power is a model of “strategic diplomatic behaviour.” The essence of international relations is seen as a contest of states on a chessboard, on which the players try to maximise their power at each other’s expense, and on which the possibility of war makes military potential and might the chief criterion of power. This view still fits much of the “game of nations,” for it follows from the logic of a decentralised milieu, whatever the specific nature of the units or the social and economic systems which they embody.

Hoffman goes on to assert that this model is invalid, since it underestimates the predominance of the United States and the Soviet Union in nuclear equipment. Thus, he concludes that the chessboard image is inappropriate to the analysis of international relations.

It would be surprising if this abundant use of chess imagery had not found its enthusiasts in the military complex. And indeed it has. In the late eighteenth century the Duke of Brunswick was made head of the Prussian armies. He was viewed with great favor by Frederick the Great, who dispatched to him numerous young gentlemen to be instructed in military doctrine. The Duke instructed his master of pages, Herr Helwig, to produce a suitable and not too unpleasant mode of instruction. Helwig came up with the first modern war game.

The idea came to me . . . of rendering sensible, not to say palpable, a few principles and rules of the military art . . . to pages of the Duke . . . and those young noblemen destined some day for military service. Independently of this objective my secondary one was to offer . . . an agreeable recreation by laying before them a game which, at first sight, presented different objects and operations, and which depended upon nothing but the rules and combinations made up by the players. The first thought which presented itself to my mind was that the learning of my game ought not to be burdened with too many de tails if it was to fulfill its mission. . . . I should achieve my objective in the quickest way if I took for its basis the game of chess .. . my idea was to adapt the game of chess to my own game . . .5

Helwig made a board of 1666 squares, colored according to geographical particularities. The pieces were modeled on chess pieces, receiving values according to the army of the time (since the original chess pieces were probably based on the state of the Indian army in the first century AD.) .6

“I was not deceived in my expectations,” Helwig wrote, “and experience confirmed the wisdom of my judgment, for chess players were the first to welcome my invention; they found it a source of great amusement, and they set to work to make it better known.” The Prussian General von der Goltz was not so enthusiastic “This war game is a bad product of the refined military education of the period, which had piled up so many difficulties that it was incapable of taking a step in advance.”

Despite such animadversions the genie was out of the bottle. Every staff college could boast of its war game and by the early twentieth century most nurseries their boxes of Attack and Tri-tactics. Many of the battles of World War I were rehearsed in war games. After Versailles the German military, bereft for a time of actual troops, had to rely on war games. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was “gamed” in advance. The Germans also simulated invasions of the Ukraine and of England. The Japanese were also enthusiasts: “Late in 1941 Cinc Combined Fleet ordered all Fleet commanders and their key staff members to Tokyo for further war games. . . . On September 2 the final and most important games started . . . the details of a surprise raid on Pearl Harbor.”

After the Second World War the United States took the lead. By the seventies over sixty organizations were interested in or engaged in war-gaming. In addition, STAG (United States Army Strategy and Tactics Analysis Group) estimates that of the more than two hundred organizations engaged in analysis in support of military decision-making, about one quarter of approximately three thousand projects per year utilize some war-gaming techniques.

All war games must, in the last analysis, ascribe certain behavior patterns to the “enemy.” The war-gamer is in the position of having to define, within the limits of his knowledge, what he imagines the enemy’s intentions are. Even minimax calculations of a zero-sum games’ model imply some opinion of what the opposition might regard as minimum and maximum benefit.

The chess model assumes this knowledge, and so do war games that follow in its path. Chess is, after all, a game played on a one-to-one basis, in the sight of both parties, with parity of intention and with equality of forces. Its operation is one of initiative and response and counterinitiative. Although one or other of the players may devise a strategy that is difficult to analyze, it is always assumed that the object will become clear, as the player nears his objective of mating his opponent, and as the opponent comprehends that plan. The players are, in short, playing the same game.

At some levels this “chess matrix” can be transferred to the military or diplomatic plane, but the matrix still assumes, within certain limits, parity of intention and parity of means. Scott Boorman confronts the dangers of this position in his book The Protracted Game, a wei-chi interpretation of Maoist revolutionary strategy. (Wei-chi is the Chinese name for the game more commonly known as Go.) As he remarks in his introduction, “The value and validity of analysis of a military strategy employed at a given place and time are in great part determined by the strategic preconceptions of the analyst, by his criteria for assessing the importance and the correctness of a given strategic decision.”

Boorman goes on to discuss Chinese strategy, which “abounds in paradoxes when judged by the standards of conventional Western military doctrine—its use of fluid operational methods and yet its reliance upon relatively stable base areas; its emphasis on efficiency and yet its tolerance of protraction; its delight in complexity in contrast to the simplicity of Western warfare.” He suggests that Chinese strategy can in fact be best distinguished by reference to the game of wei-chi, and he proceeds at some length to do so.

But Boorman makes a mistake in his efforts to show that Western analysts must think themselves into the strategies and tactics of Wei-chi to understand Chinese intentions and maneuvers. For Boorman, it is a question of counterposing Western to Eastern traditions, rather than bourgeois war to people’s war. As a matter of fact chess is in origin an Eastern game, and the guerrilla warfare he discusses has emerged in the West. Chess can provide a very inadequate model of relations between similarly organized hierarchical states but is completely inapplicable to revolutionary civil war. Wei-chi is probably only a little bit better in this respect, since it too tends to start from some equivalence of position, at least in the sense that the two players are at the same game, with the same rules. This is never true of revolutionary civil war.

It is intriguing to speculate that 1972 was a year in which the major Communist powers, for their own reasons, were prepared to play the same game as Nixon, giving a strictly limited validity to Kissinger-type game theory. Now, chess may have some lessons for economic planning and conventional war and diplomacy—even though this is rare. But it has none for revolutionary struggle on the national and international plane, and this is where the Russian zealots for the game in the twenties made their mistake. Ultimately the antagonism and incomparability of United States imperialism on the one side and Russia and China as postrevolutionary states on the other will undermine any application of game theory to their relations with each other, just as the Vietnamese struggle invalidated it in Indochina.

No game model, such as chess, can in the end tolerate the notion of total contradiction, since all games accept the idea of rules. The subversive force is not the cheat. He accepts the rules in so far as he distorts them, within their terms. The subversive is the person who refuses to accept the rules at all. You cannot cheat at chess, but you can refuse to play it. The ultimate foolishness, of such people as the war-game planners, is to expect that everyone will play by the same rules with the same intentions as themselves. The game of chess is not, as I have tried to stress in this book, part of normal social reality. Symbolic meanings are not amenable to exact transliteration.


July 15, 2013

A Colossal Wreck

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn — louisproyect @ 8:51 pm

I just received a review copy of Alexander Cockburn’s 570-page “A Colossal Wreck” from Verso Press and could not be more excited. I had already ordered one from the CP website that I will present as a gift to a good friend who has been reading and supporting CP for as long as me.

“A Colossal Wreck” appears to be a journal that Cockburn kept from 1995 until a week before his death on July 21, 2012. As one might have guessed, there appears to be not a single word about his illness in the entire book.

While skimming through the book, I came across an entry that reminded me (as if I needed any reminder) about why I loved him. It was not just the politics (of course we did have our differences but as Joe E. Brown told Jack Lemmon at the very end of “Some Like it Hot”: nobody’s perfect) but also his writing that remained bracing until the very end. He hated shitty prose in the same way that he hated shitty politicians. In this exegesis on the jargonistic use of the word “grow”, he articulated what has bothered me for the longest time.

I first hear the term “growing the firm” when I was a consultant at Mobil Oil in the early 80s and thought it an assault on the English language. I am particularly irked by its use on the left, even if infrequent. When Carl Davidson talked about “growing the economy” in one of his flabby pieces on the American political scene, I gave him a piece of my mind. I only wish that I had this piece at my fingertips at the time, not that it would have made any difference.

The book can now be ordered from http://www.easycartsecure.com/CounterPunch/CounterPunch_Books.html. Be there or be square.

January 27, 2012

Last week revolutionary Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville announced the capture and imminent trial of “grow,” long sought in its counter-revolutionary mutation as a transitive verb governing an abstraction, as in “grow the economy,” a formulation popular among the Girondin faction. “Grow,” said the Prosecutor, was being held in the Conciergerie, under constant surveillance. I’ve no doubt that the Tribunal will not long delay in sending “grow” in this usage to a well-deserved rendezvous with the fatal blade. I associate the usage with the 1992 Clinton campaign, where talk about “growing the economy” was at gale force. My friends and neighbors here in Petrolia, Karen and Joe Paff, tell me that when they were starting up their coffee business, Goldrush, at the start of the 1980s, the local bank officials were already hard at it, talking about “growing the business.” I hate the usage, with its smarmy implication of virtuous horticultural effort. As CounterPuncher Michael Greenberg writes, “It sounds phony, aggressive, and even grammatically incorrect, not the nurturing ‘grow’ that one associates with living things.”

Joining “grow” in the tumbril will, I trust, be “blood and treasure,” used with great solemnity by opinion formers to describe the cost, often the supposedly worthy sacrifice, attached to America’s wars. The usage apparently goes back to Jefferson, but that’s no excuse. The catchphrase seeks to turn slaughter and the shoveling of money to arms manufacturers into a noble, almost mythic expenditure. Shackled to “blood and treasure” should be its co-conspirator, “in harm’s way:’ Jack Flannigan writes from Kerala, “Mr. Cockburn, Somebody might have beat me to it but my candidate for the squeaky old tumbril is ‘in harm’s way.’ It has, especially in the last ten years, acquired a treacly red, white, and blue patina about it that is over-whelmingly connected to the military and police. Someone sailing on a Gaza flotilla or staring down a line of sneering, rabid cops is not very likely to be referred by our political/media elites as ‘in harm’s way.’” Last week, dispatching the phrase to the tumbrils, I said the G. H. Bush campaign of 1979 for the Republican nomination hefted “It’s not over till the fat lady sings” to national prominence. Jeremy Pikser writes to say the phrase “was actually first popularized by the coach (or owner?) of the Baltimore Bullets basketball team in 1978. As usual G. H. Bush was only capable of feeble imitation when he used it, hoping to sound like a ‘real guy.’” Further research discloses its use in sports journalism has been attributed to writer/broadcaster Dan Cook around the same time, and in the mid-‘70s by a Texas Tech sports official.

From: Kevin Rath

Mr. Cockburn,

Recently I have been accosted with the phrase “reaching out to you” by sales people. While it may be inappropriate since your focus is the news, this stupid phrase people from marketing use in their email subject titles and language is really annoying.

Reaching out to your tumbril cart,

Kevin Rath, a CP member

October 18, 2012

Why you should contribute to Counterpunch

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,journalism,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

Jeff St. Clair

I just contributed $50 to Counterpunch’s fund-drive and strongly urge you to do so as well.

As many of you might have noticed, I began writing for Counterpunch recently and am thrilled to do so. The circumstances are fairly typical of my complex (to say the least) relationship to the magazine and the towering presence most identified with it, Alexander Cockburn.

A day or so after it appeared I made some rude remark on Marxmail about Mike Whitney’s CP hatchet job on Pussy Riot. Jeff St. Clair (who I was pleased to discover is a lurker) then dropped me a line inviting me to weigh in with my disagreements. He actually corrected me on one important point. I had complained about how the coverage was one-sided but he pointed out that Chris Randolph had already answered Whitney there.

That’s the thing about Counterpunch. It gets your juices flowing. This week people on Marxmail have got themselves all worked up over Israel Shamir’s love poem to Pol Pot, as if there was any great danger of his article actually winning people over to the Khmer Rouge’s cause. The consensus was that CP was wrong to give Shamir a platform.

I get a chuckle out of that because in some circles I am considered more of a reprobate than Shamir, given my supposedly Hitchenesque embrace of the Libyan and Syrian revolutionaries. Jeff shared an email he got over my maiden voyage on CP:

Why does Counterpunch keep running the thoughts of Chairman Louis Proyect on your site, since he is a guy who is a total discredit to all that marxism should stand for?  Why not republish works by Gus Hall instead, for at least he is no longer alive still censoring comrades for not being supposedly ‘marxist’ enough … OH! so politically correct as Proyect does on HIS so-called marxism list?  And Gus Hall at least is not currently working to promote NATO-Pentagon bombing of Syria over on Proyect’s new ‘Northstar’ blog either, which also censors off all contrary viewpoints being allowed there online same as on ‘marxism list’.

One of the things I have learned over the years is that it is better for people to talk about you even if they have nothing good to say than to be ignored. In fact the last $50 contribution I made to Counterpunch was out of gratitude for Alexander Cockburn’s diss:

Who says these days that in the last analysis, the only way to change the status quo and challenge the Money Power of Wall St is to overthrow the government by force? That isn’t some old Trotskyist lag like Louis Proyect, dozing on the dungheap of history like Odysseus’ lice-ridden old hound Argos, woofing with alarm as the shadow of a new idea darkens the threshold.

Who cares if I am lice-ridden as long as I get my name out there?

On a more serious note, the best indication of the value of Counterpunch is the amount of articles I crosspost to the Marxism list. I doubt that a week goes by without me forwarding something (just by coincidence the last one is on “The Pussy Riot of Vietnam” by Linh Dinh that is just the sort of thing that more than makes up for Israel Shamir).

It is also important to underline Counterpunch’s utility as a research database for the left. On countless occasions when I have written something for my blog, I go to the search field on Counterpunch first to find articles that I can cite. For example, I will be preparing something on the nature of the jobs that have been created under Obama’s “recovery” and particularly the recent spike that cut the unemployment rate to 7.8 percent. I just entered “low-wage jobs” and “recovery” there and came up with an article by Eileen Appelbaum titled “Low-Wage Jobs and the Stalled Recovery” that I am sure I will consult. For the left to have such information at its fingertips is an incalculable asset.

It is surely worth a dollar a week, isn’t it? Go to Counterpunch (http://www.counterpunch.org) and read Jeff’s appeal. Then, without wasting any time, click this link (http://www.easycartsecure.com/CounterPunch/Donations.html) and support the voice of those struggling for a better world.

August 7, 2012

Jeff St. Clair remembers Alexander Cockburn

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn — louisproyect @ 5:25 pm

July 21, 2012

What Alexander Cockburn meant to me

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn — louisproyect @ 7:32 pm

Returning to New York in 1979 after an abortive attempt at becoming an industrial worker in Kansas City as part of the SWP’s “turn”, I wanted to put as much distance between me and the left as possible. Keeping in mind that I was still loyal to the cult, the left was pretty much synonymous with the SWP.  When I rejoined the consulting company I left to go out to Kansas City, I asked around to see if anybody knew of an available apartment. When my boss told me that he changed his mind about renting a place on 91st and Third and that I could take it if I wanted, my first reaction was to almost turn the offer down. Why would I want to live among a bunch of yuppies in a neighborhood whose only real distinction was that Woody Allen lived there (you have to remember that he was still funny at the time)? Upon further reflection, I decided that the neighborhood would make sense given my state of mind. At least I wouldn’t be running into any SWP’ers.

I had plans back then to begin writing novels and enjoy New York’s cultural attractions. (I have long given up on the first option.) In order to keep track of what was happening in NY at the time, the Village Voice was still necessary reading. With film reviews by J. Hoberman and other informed pieces, the paper was worth the dollar or so it cost at the time. (Now it is free and correspondingly worth nothing.)

Alexander Cockburn had begun writing a “Press Clips” column for the Voice in 1973, a good 3 years after I had departed the city. He was still writing it in 1979 upon my return and I became addicted to it immediately. Having been used to the stodgy and dogmatic style of the Trotskyist press, it was a wonder to see someone who was both radical and fun to read. Cockburn also partnered with James Ridgeway to write a weekly column on politics. Many of their articles were collected in “Corruptions of Empire”, one of the best books ever to carry the Cockburn brand.

In 1982 Cockburn was suspended from the Voice for taking money from an Arab studies foundation. As a highly marketable journalist, Cockburn told the Voice to take their job and shove it. From there he went to the Nation Magazine, which like the Village Voice (most of the time) was worth reading.

I took out a subscription to the magazine for the express purpose of reading Cockburn and cancelled my subscription in 2010 after his column was cut back to one page. Around the same time I began subscribing to Harper’s, another venue for Cockburn. In August 1982, he wrote a critique of the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour on PBS that can be described as vintage Cockburn. It opens with the two centrist bores reporting from Galilee way back when:

ROBERT MACNEIL (voice over): A Galilean preacher claims he is the Redeemer and says the poor are blessed. Should he be crucified?

MACNEIL: Good evening. The Roman procurator in Jerusalem is trying to decide whether a man regarded by many as a saint should be put to death. Pontius Pilate is being urged by civil libertarians to intervene in what is seen here in Rome as being basically a local dispute. Tonight, the crucifixion debate. Jim?

JIM LEHRER: Robin, the provinces of Judaea and Galilee have always been trouble spots, and this year is no exception. The problem is part religious, part political, and in many ways a mixture of both. The Jews believe in one god. Discontent in the province has been growing, with many local businessmen complaining about the tax burden. Terrorism, particularly in Galilee, has been on the increase. In recent months, a carpenter’s son from the town of Nazareth has been attracting a large following with novel doctrines and faith healing. He recently entered Jerusalem amid popular acclaim, but influential Jewish leaders fear his power. Here in Alexandria the situation is seen as dangerous. Robin?

I have taken the liberty to put the entire article on my website. Read it to see how good Cockburn was when his juices were flowing.

I became such a huge Cockburn fan that I even began subscribing to the Wall Street Journal just to read his once every 3-week column (triweekly?), a token to diversity that would never be allowed under Murdoch’s ownership. Taking advantage of one of my most valued benefits at Columbia University, I looked into the WSJ archives to find something good by Alexander. Ironically, one of the best pieces was a blast at Ted Koppel’s Nightline, which along with the McNeil-Lehrer Snooze Hour was considered necessary viewing by educated middle-class Americans. Written in 1990, it described his appearance on a show devoted to the collapse of the USSR. Needless to say, Cockburn was feisty as ever:

At the ABC studios they make me up and sit me down. The drill with Mr. Koppel is that you look into a camera and listen to you earphone. You can’t see what’s happening. You have to keep looking at the camera because you don’t know when Mr. Koppel, the only person who can see all the people on the show, who controls everything, is going to call on you. Swivel your eyes away from the camera and millions will think you have something to hide.

Suddenly we’re off. I can hear the soundtrack of some footage; of people hammering down the Wall, denouncing communism. Then I hear Mr. Koppel saying, “. . . the state of distress in which Communism finds itself. . . . seems easier for some Soviets to accept than for . . . left-wingers like Alexander Cockburn or leaders of the American Communist Party like Angela Davis.” So it’s a setup: The viewers have been invited to watch scenes of collapsing communism, then here’s Mr. Koppel cutting to the last dinosaurs, clanking into the studio dragging the ball and chain of dead, bad ideas. Had Tracy Day told Mr. Koppel the lines I was thinking along? Had Mr. Koppel decided to shackle me and Prof. Davis as gauleiters of the gulag, offset by the virtuous Mr. Sturua, symbol of New Thinking and penitence for the past?

This was the trend of the show. Mr. Koppel got increasingly testy. Why, he asked, did I keep bringing up capitalism? We were meant to be talking about communism. It became a dialogue of the deaf. I said in order to understand why millions of people around the world are still fired with socialist ideals you have to understand that if actually existing communism was and is abhorrent to some, actually existing capitalism is abhorrent to others.

I was going to add that on the same May Day that Russian workers were booing the Soviet leaders, workers in the Philippines were demonstrating against the regime and the U.S. bases, and in South Korea striking shipyard workers were still battling police.

No time for this though. By now Mr. Koppel was saying that I was putting words into his mouth and Prof. Davis was trying to explain that capitalism was not working too well for black people here in the U.S. and Mr. Sturua was saying that Karl Marx was right when he said that theory was gray but green the tree of life. From the corner of my eye I saw a copy of Business Week featuring on its cover the best-paid executive of 1989, Craig McCaw, weighing in with $53.9 million. Why didn’t I just hold it up to the camera and say that against salaries like this, how could the ideals of socialism ever die? But it was all over. I didn’t even have time to tell Mr. Sturua that Goethe, not Marx, said the thing about the green tree. At least he had Marx associated with living things.

I realize now why I loved Cockburn so much. His business about “Mr. Koppel cutting to the last dinosaurs, clanking into the studio dragging the ball and chain of dead, bad ideas” embraces the idea of being unfashionable. Alexander Cockburn was never interested in being accepted by the political tastemakers. Wherever he wrote, from the Village Voice to House and Garden, he always told it like it is–unrepentantly.

As leftists in the U.S. and other prosperous countries in the First World, our problem has never been repression although we have always had to watch out for Cointelpro, getting fired from a university or a newspaper for having unpopular ideas, and other such inconveniences. It has always been about refusing to bow to the pressure of the intellectual and ideological hegemony of the ruling class. It is so easy to get that cushy job in academia or in the bourgeois press for just playing along. You can even refer to Marx just as long as you don’t try to make his ideas too relevant to what’s going on the world.

Cockburn always put his ideas on the line. He was courageous and he had integrity by the railroad carload. I can honestly say that I only decided to continue with radical politics in the early 80s because of his writing. I can also say that in my own crude and muddling fashion, I have tried to write like him. Granted, my half-assed Bard College education could never compete with the kind of training he must have gotten at Oxford but at least I was encouraged by his example to speak my mind and let the chips fall where they may.

Even when I disagreed with Alexander Cockburn, I always respected the courage of his convictions. He did not give a shit if the entire left disagreed with him on global warming. He had made up his mind and would not budge an inch. With so much groupthink at work on the left, it was essential to its health to have a legendary journalist not to be afraid of being a minority of one. If we are ever going to have a revolutionary movement in the U.S. capable of going up against the most powerful ruling class in history, we will need activists with the courage of their convictions. As Karl Marx once said, we need ruthless criticism of the existing order. I have no idea what words will appear on this great journalist’s tombstone (or if he will be cremated) but “ruthless criticism” are the words I will always see as his epitaph.

Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,obituary — louisproyect @ 12:40 pm
Counterpunch Weekend Edition July 21-23, 2012

Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012

Farewell, Alex, My Friend


Our friend and comrade Alexander Cockburn died last night in Germany, after a fierce two-year long battle against cancer. His daughter Daisy was at his bedside.

Alex kept his illness a tightly guarded secret. Only a handful of us knew how terribly sick he truly was. He didn’t want the disease to define him. He didn’t want his friends and readers to shower him with sympathy. He didn’t want to blog his own death as Christopher Hitchens had done. Alex wanted to keep living his life right to the end. He wanted to live on his terms. And he wanted to continue writing through it all, just as his brilliant father, the novelist and journalist Claud Cockburn had done. And so he did. His body was deteriorating, but his prose remained as sharp, lucid and deadly as ever.

In one of Alex’s last emails to me, he patted himself on the back (and deservedly so) for having only missed one column through his incredibly debilitating and painful last few months. Amid the chemo and blood transfusions and painkillers, Alex turned out not only columns for CounterPunch and The Nation and First Post, but he also wrote a small book called Guillotine and finished his memoirs, A Colossal Wreck, both of which CounterPunch plans to publish over the course of the next year.

Alex lived a huge life and he lived it his way. He hated compromise in politics and he didn’t tolerate it in his own life. Alex was my pal, my mentor, my comrade. We joked, gossiped, argued and worked together nearly every day for the last twenty years. He leaves a huge void in our lives. But he taught at least two generations how to think, how to look at the world, how to live a life of resistance. So, the struggle continues and we’re going to remain engaged. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

In the coming days and weeks, CounterPunch will publish many tributes to Alex from his friends and colleagues. But for this day, let us remember him through a few images taken by our friend Tao Ruspoli.

July 9, 2012

Alexander Cockburn throws a spitball at Occupy–and misses

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Ever the contrarian, Alexander Cockburn threw a spitball at the Occupy movement on Counterpunch last Saturday that made me wonder if he ever had any enthusiasm for it despite the friendly articles that appeared there from the beginning.

The one thing that struck me as egregiously wrong was this:

Where was the knowledge of, let along the respect for the past? We had the non-violent resistors of the Forties organising against the war with enormous courage. The Fifties saw leftists took McCarthyism full on the chin. With the Sixties we were making efforts at revolutionary organisation and resistance.
 Yet when one raised this history with someone from Occupy, I encountered total indifference.

Maybe I am missing something but I got reports on almost a daily basis about some “old leftist” or another getting an enthusiastic response when they spoke to the occupiers, from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz to the ISO’s Anthony Arnove. And speaking of the sixties, the New Left was infamous for its lack of “respect for the past”. And, finally, I am a bit puzzled by Alexander’s reference to us “making efforts at revolutionary organization and resistance”. I am almost tempted to repeat Tonto’s reminder to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean by ‘us’, white man?” Alexander, unlike Christopher Hitchens, is and was a political virgin. He does not know what it means to roll up his sleeves and actually go out and organize people. I think he is a very fine journalist, one of the best on the left on his better days, but he really doesn’t know anything about building organizations.

Most of Alexander’s hostility to the Occupy movement is based on an article by Thomas Naylor that appeared on Counterpunch on March 27th, 2012. Titled “Occupy Wall Street Revisited, Who is Occupying Whom?“, it poses the interesting question (without a question mark unfortunately): “Is it possible that the real purpose of Occupy Wall Street has little to do with either the 99 percent or the 1 percent but rather everything to do with keeping the political left in America decentralized, widely dispersed, very busy, and completely impotent to deal with the collapse of the American Empire”. Well, at least Naylor does not blame the CIA or other nefarious state agencies for this turn of events, as the ineffable Michel Chossudovsky did.

Naylor also objects to the appearance of the protestors, reminding me of Al Capp and George Jessel’s fulminations against hippie protestors on the Tonight Show during the Vietnam War:

Although Bill O’Reilly’s mean-spirited portrayal of OWS is grossly unfair, some of the TV images of OWS protestors do not instill confidence in their ability to change the world. Many of them come across as stereotypical radical, disgruntled, hippie malcontents. The problem lies when they become the defining image of a fledgling political movement.

It is hard for me to conjure up an image of a stereotypical radical/hippie malcontent. What does this mean? Wearing a black beret and a tie-dyed t-shirt? Somehow it doesn’t compute. At any rate, here’s a reminder of what a typical protestor looked like, from my visit down to Occupy Wall Street:

click image to play video

Alexander had another beef with the Occupy movement: “Where the hell’s the plan?” I wonder if his endorsement of Naylor’s critique includes an endorsement of the plan that he has long been associated with, namely Vermont seceding from the United States. Naylor is founder of the Second Vermont Republic, a group described on its website as follows:

The Second Vermont Republic is a nonviolent citizens’ network and think tank committed to: (1) the peaceful breakup of meganations such as the United States, Russia, and China; (2) the political independence of breakaway states such as Quebec, Scotland, and Vermont; and (3) a strategic alliance with other small, democratic, nonviolent, affluent, socially responsible, cooperative, egalitarian, sustainable, ecofriendly nations such as Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland which share a high degree of environmental integrity and a strong sense of community.

All I can say is that the young people who occupied Wall Street were vindicated by provoking the wrath of this 76 year old Professor Emeritus from Duke University, for this “plan” is about as batty as they come. I got a big kick out of the description of Austria as being “democratic” and “nonviolent”. Does Naylor read a newspaper?

The Guardian, Saturday 18 October 2008

Kate Connolly

‘Haider is our Lady Di’

As the leaders of Europe’s far-right parties gather for today’s state funeral of Austria’s most controversial politician, is European fascism once again on the rise?

“Official Austrian state doctrine after the war was that the Allies liberated Austria from Nazi Germany in 1945 and that Austria had been a victim of the Nazis in 1938,” says Pelinka. “This overlooks the fact that the percentage of Austrians who participated in the Nazi regime was the same as in Germany. In contrast, Germany was forced to confront its past directly and did so. Austria was not and didn’t.”

In Germany, Haider – famous for his outbursts lauding SS veterans, his description of Austria as an “ideological miscarriage”, his labelling of Nazi death camps as “punishment camps” and admiration for the Third Reich’s “sensible employment policies” – could never have achieved the same success.

Haider himself was frustrated in his attempts to form a pan-European far-right club, though he was successful at least in his intention of provoking European leaders after they slapped sanctions on Austria following the electoral success of his Freedom party (FPO) in 2000.

Nonetheless he is credited with having injected new life into far-right politics. “He was one of the first in Europe to grasp that it’s not about issues or a rational discourse, but about emotion,” says Brem. “He understood that politics was about marketing and you need to be marketing savvy to succeed.”

“What Haider did was to bring Austria’s SS and Nazi history out of the past and put it in the present and because he was such a charismatic politician he got away with it,” says Rauscher. “But his lasting legacy is the way that he poisoned the political atmosphere in Austria in the process.”

Now I am not trying to connect Thomas Naylor with someone like Haider but there are worrisome signs that the Vermont secessionists have been a bit undiscriminating in their relations with Americans who are. In trying to build a nationwide network, Naylor approached an outfit called The League of the South that describes itself as “distinct from, and in opposition to, the corrupt mainstream American culture.” They “stand for our own sublime cultural inheritance and seek to separate ourselves from the cultural rot that is American culture.” This is a bumper sticker they sell from their website:

Under pressure from the Vermont left, Naylor broke with the racists. The Green Mountain Daily, a liberal Vermont website, questioned Naylor’s motivations:

The famous Thomas “Don’t Call Me a Racist” Naylor has published a letter called (I’m not making this up)

To The League of the South From Vermont With Love

Yes, you read that right: “With Love”. That’s only the first reason to question the sincerity of this “break”, however. If you read the letter, you will see that, far from acknowledging the racism of the League of the South, Naylor treats it as no more than a PR problem.

Naylor thinks racism is no more than a problem of perception. Naylor covers some history, and then begins with the racist aroma surrounding secession movements: “Secession is often equated with Southern, redneck, Christian fundamentalist racism. Anyone who is a secessionist is considered a likely racist, but a Southern secessionist is a racist a priori. Since the LOS is a Southern secessionist group, it’s hardly surprising that there is a widespread perception that it is racist”. Get it? There’s nothing racist about LOS, but for some bizarre reason, people think that southern secessionists have some racist ideas. According to Naylor, this idea is no more than a “knee-jerk reaction” on the part of most Americans. It’s not that there actually is any racism involved in secessionists, it’s just “equated with” southern racism. The problem isn’t the racist ideas, it’s that people can’t stop thinking about them. There’s nothing wrong with it except those unfortunate associations with “images of the Civil War, slavery, racism, violence, and preservation of the Southern way of life.”

This unfortunate perception even infects the cultural symbols of the South. For instance, here’s Naylor on the Confederate flag: Whether justifiably or not, most Southern blacks view the Confederate flag as an overt racist symbol aimed at rubbing salt in their 400-year wounds.

Returning again to Alexander, I do have to wonder who he is referring to when he writes: “Leninists threw aside their Marxist primers on party organisation and drained the full anarchist cocktail.” This snappy bit of prose is classic Cockburn, incorporating everything except what journalism schools harp on: who, what, where, when and why.

Is a Leninist somebody who has nice things to say about Lenin, like the irrepressible Slavoj Zizek? I kind of doubt it. Lacan, not Lenin, seems more to the point. To me, Leninist means somebody who is actively involved in building a “Leninist” party like the ISO, the SWP, and the rest of the alphabet soup. Somehow, I don’t think that they ever “drained the full anarchist cocktail”. Mostly, they had some nice things to say about the movement but were never organically part of it. As is too often the case, they came to the movement with their own agenda and sought ways to exploit it. The one thing that the movement was resistant to was this kind of cadre intervention.

This leads me to my final point. Wherever this movement goes next, it pointed to the possibility of building massive anti-capitalist protests without the dubious support from the Leninist left. It is entirely possible that Alexander was referring not to Leninists, but ex-Leninists like Pham Binh who worked tirelessly on behalf of the movement and spoke about its possibilities for the future.

As American capitalism continues to hand out the shitty end of the stick to working people and the poor, there will be an impetus for a grass roots movement that challenges the ruling class. It will be incumbent on the “old left” to find a way to relate to such a development in a positive way and to learn from it. The Occupy movement has made mistakes, black bloc-ism the worst of it in my opinion, but it has also had a capacity to adjust and to move forward.

I suspect that in its next upward surge, whether in the name of Occupy or some other permutation, it will inspire millions, including the founder of Counterpunch who is not too old—one hopes—to be inspired by a genuine insurrectionary movement.

February 18, 2012

The black bloc, jihadism, and Counterpunch

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,black bloc idiots,Jihadists — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

Anybody who reads Counterpunch on a regular basis as I do (I also donated $50 to a recent fund-drive and subscribe to the electronic version of the newsletter—so I do understand its value) must be aware of its two highest priority talking points of late:

1. Al-Qaeda type jihadists are a terrible danger to al-Assad’s Syria and good enough reason to back the dictator. For example, Peter Lee wrote an article in this weekend’s edition:

More worryingly, al-Qaeda’s enthusiastic attempt to piggyback on the spiraling unrest in Syria—and the car bombings in Aleppo which, if not the work of Zawahiri’s minions, can probably be traced back to al-Qaeda’s Gulf-funded Sunni Islamist fans in western Iraq—are a warning that backing the feckless SNC in an agenda of regime collapse is not going to be the carefree, Iran-bashing romp so many interventionists are advertising.

2. Chris Hedges’s attack on the black bloc is an ominous threat against radical politics in the U.S. and every effort must be mounted to defend the vandalistas, either critically or uncritically. One of the prime examples is an article that appeared in the February 9th edition by Peter Gelderloos, the author of the aptly named “How Nonviolence Protects the State”. In the article, titled “The Surgeons of Occupy”, Gelderloos draws an unfortunate amalgam between the black bloc and the anarchist movement as a whole: “But beneath the black masks, anarchists have been an integral part of the debates, the organizing, the cooking and cleaning in dozens of cities.” So, in effect, when Hedges attacks vandalism, he is also attacking cooking and cleaning—I suppose. I say suppose because Gelderloos, like many black bloc aficionados, is skilled at demagogy. Or more accurately, uses demagogy rather ineffectively to avoid a serious debate.

I had no idea who Gelderloos was, but was intrigued to discover in the midst of a spittle-flecked attack on me by a Kasama Project commenter (I am a “Pseudo-Trotskyist renegade… practicing revisionist right-deviationism”) that “Gelderloos makes statements of support for the mass-murder of Spanish civilians by the right-wing Muslim group Al-Qaeda” in “How Nonviolence Protects the State”.

Wow, how about that!

As it turns out, there is a pdf version of the book. Wasting no time, I tracked down the passage in question and converted into regular text:

A good case study regarding the efficacy of nonviolent protest can be seen in Spain’s involvement with the US-led occupation. Spain, with 1,300 troops, was one of the larger junior partners in the “Coalition of the Willing.” More than one million Spaniards pro-tested the invasion, and 80 percent of the Spanish population was opposed to it, but their commitment to peace ended there—they did nothing to actually prevent Spanish military support for the invasion and occupation. Because they remained passive and did nothing to disempower the leadership, they remained as powerless as the citizens of any democracy. Not only was Spanish Prime Minister Aznar able and allowed to go to war, he was expected by all forecasts to win reelection—until the bombings. On March 11, 2004, just days before the voting booths opened, multiple bombs planted by an Al-Qaida-linked cell exploded in Madrid train stations, killing 191 people and injuring thousands more. Directly because of this, Aznar and his party lost in the polls, and the Socialists, the major party with an anti-war platform, were elected into power. The US-led coalition shrunk with the loss of 1,300 Spanish troops, and promptly shrunk again after the Dominican Republic and Honduras also pulled out their troops. Whereas millions of peaceful activists voting in the streets like good sheep have not weakened the brutal occupation in any measurable way, a few dozen terrorists willing to slaughter noncombatants were able to cause the withdrawal of more than a thousand occupation troops.

So nonviolence lacks “efficacy” but killing 191 Spaniards in train stations does not. A while back, I made a big deal about a book on Infoshop.org making the case that the black bloc is following in the steps of the Weathermen but this reaches level of insanity that simply takes my breath away.

What can we say about this? Can we make a connection between the black bloc and jihadism? Probably not. But I would say this. Alexander Cockburn would be well-advised to exercise a bit more editorial scrutiny in the future. I know that it gets hard when you hit 71 to stay on top of details but I am quite sure that there would be any number of interns out there who would be willing to give him a hand, if for no other reason to spare a once very admired journalist from allowing his website to embarrass itself further.

September 1, 2011

What is Robert Bryce doing on Counterpunch?

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,Ecology — louisproyect @ 4:34 pm

Robert Bryce

An old friend alerted me to the presence of Robert Bryce’s articles on Counterpunch. Bryce is the author of “Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future”, a book whose agenda you can figure out from the scare quotes around Green. Apparently, according to the blurb on Amazon.com, Bryce rules out wind and solar power as ineffective and insists that “The world isn’t using too much oil. It’s not using enough”. Furthermore:

Bryce makes a strong case for heavier reliance upon natural gas, a relatively clean and readily available carbon fuel, as a bridge technology: “The smartest, most forward-looking U.S. energy policy can be summed up in one acronym: ‘N2N’,” for “natural gas to nuclear power.”

Forward-looking? Natural gas? The stuff that comes to the surface through fracking? And nuclear power???? The energy source that, according to Alexander Cockburn, is being foisted on us in the name of a non-existent climate change threat? Here’s Bryce talking up nuclear power in a New York Times op-ed:

All energy and power systems exact a toll. If we are to take Schumacher’s phrase to heart while also reducing the rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions, we must exploit the low-carbon energy sources — natural gas and, yes, nuclear — that have smaller footprints.

And, just as a reminder, here’s Alexander on nuclear power and global warming alarmism:

The world’s best-known hysteric and self promoter on the topic of man’s physical and moral responsibility for global warming is Al Gore, a shill for the nuclear industry and the coal barons from the first day he stepped into Congress entrusted with the sacred duty to protect the budgetary and regulatory interests of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Oakridge National Lab. White House “task forces” on climate change in the Clinton-Gore years were always well freighted by Gore and his adviser John Holdren with nukers like Lawrence Papay of Bechtel.

Maybe if Gore had included a pitch for Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” mantra, it would have passed muster with our intrepid if inconsistent journalist.

Bryce is a scholar at the Manhattan Institute in New York, arguably one of the most reactionary think-tanks in the country that was launched by CIA director William Casey in 1978. It includes William Kristol on the board of trustees. Perhaps Cockburn looks benignly on Manhattan Institute scholars since they are climate change skeptics just like him. The Koch brothers contributed $1,525,000 to the Manhattan Institute between 1999 and 2009. I guess there’s no surprise there.

The Institute publishes City Journal, a magazine that along with Commentary and Kristol’s own Weekly Standard helps to define the intellectual agenda of the ultraright in the U.S. The current issue has an article by paleoconservative Victor Davis Hanson on California’s water problems. Unsurprisingly, he takes the side of agribusiness against environmentalists worried about wildlife using the same kinds of arguments that have been deployed in the past about the spotted owl, the snail darter, et al: “What is clear in this confused mess is that concerns for salmon and smelt now endanger a vast California agribusiness sector that provides thousands of jobs, earns the state billions in revenue, and ships produce worldwide at a time of global food crisis.” Will Victor Davis Hanson’s name be the next to grace the pages of Counterpunch? One has to wonder.

I know that consistency is the hobgoblin of petty minds but Counterpunch does tend to frown on the extraction of oil from Tar Sands in Canada. On August 9th of this month, they published an article by Brian L. Horejsi that starts off:

Some time in the very near future – perhaps as early as this fall –  President Obama and administration insiders will approve the construction of the massive Keystone XL pipeline. With the stroke of that pen the gates will open to the flow of about 700,000 barrels of the most costly and toxic oil on earth from below the no longer quiet boreal forests of Alberta to Oklahoma and the Gulf of Mexico. He will make that decision on the back of pressure from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, personal pressure from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper whose home happens to be in Alberta, and under intense pressure from a  coalition of republicans and democrats whose election campaigns have benefited from millions of dollars contributed by the oil and gas industry.

Meanwhile Bryce debates Bill McKibben on the PBS News Hour, making the case for Tars Sands oil production: http://www.tarsandsaction.org/mckibben-debates-keystone-xl-pbs/

I understand that Counterpunch likes to spice up their issues with the musings of rightwing slugs like Paul Craig Roberts, but is there any real value in Bryce’s articles? There’s a long jeremiad against wind energy titled T. Boone’s Windy Misadventure that takes issue with the “corporate” promotion of wind turbines that emit low-frequency noises that wreak havoc with your psyche, kill golden eagles, etc. One wonders if Bryce will ever find the occasion to submit an article to Counterpunch defending another initiative of T. Boone Pickens, namely drilling for natural gas using hydrofracking. Here’s Robert Bryce telling Wall Street Journal readers about the wonders of hyrdrofracking:

America Needs the Shale Revolution

June 13, 2011

Wall Street Journal

The U.S. is on the verge of an industrial renaissance if—and it’s a big if—policy makers don’t foul it up by restricting the ability of drillers to use the technology that’s making a renaissance possible: hydraulic fracturing.

The shale drilling boom now underway in Texas, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and other states is already creating jobs, slashing natural-gas prices, and spurring billions of dollars of investment in new production capacity for critical commodities like steel and petrochemicals. Better yet, it’s spurring a huge increase in domestic oil production, which has been falling steadily since the 1970s.

Despite the myriad benefits of the low-cost hydrocarbons that are now being produced thanks to hydraulic fracturing, the media, environmental groups and politicians are hyping the possible dangers of the process, which uses high-pressure pumps to force water, sand and chemicals into shale formations. Doing so fractures the formation and allows the extraction of natural gas or petroleum.

Mostly Bryce’s articles on Counterpunch might seem unobjectionable since typically they debunk claims made for Ethanol, a “Green” energy source that will ultimately threaten food production near and far. But there’s one titled Bamboozled About Energy that really clues you in what he is about:

It has taken the US more than a century to build a $14 trillion economy – an economy that is based almost entirely on abundant supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas. No matter which of the “green” energy technologies that are now being hyped – electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines, etc. – will make a dramatic dent in US or global energy consumption for decades to come.

Moving the US and world economies away from hydrocarbons will take most of the 21st century and trillions of dollars of new investment. That’s the reality – and it doesn’t take a degree in physics or even a hand-held calculator to confirm it.

Make no doubt about it. This is the voice of big business defending the status quo. We may not need T. Boone Pickens’s approach to wind energy but surely we need a way out of fossil fuel production if the planet is to have a future, at least based on the calculation that climate change will lead to monstrous flooding in some areas of the planet and drought in others that will cost millions of lives.

Speaking of which, I have a sense that Counterpunch’s co-editor Jeff St. Clair is aware of the threat based on a link he posted to Facebook a while back. It led to this New Yorker article:

Nowadays, whenever there’s an Irene-like event—a huge storm, a terrible flood, a killer heat wave—the question is raised: was this caused by global warming? The very frequency with which this question is being asked these days should make people take notice, but the answer that comes back is usually squishy enough to allow them to forget about the issue until the next disaster occurs, at which point the process starts all over again. The problem here, as several commentators have pointed out this weekend, is that the question being posed is not the question we should be asking.

The standard answer to the question “Was Irene (or the recent flooding along the Missouri River, or the current record-breaking Texas drought, or [choose your own favorite example]) caused by global warming?” is: No one event can be definitively attributed to climate change (though in some cases, you can get pretty close). Hurricanes fall into the category of “weather,” which is driven partly by large and predictable forces and partly by those that are stochastic, or random.

How about posing the question this way: Are more events like Irene what you would expect in a warming world? Here the answer is a straightforward “yes.” In fact, experts have been warning for years that New York will become increasingly vulnerable to storm surges and flooding as the planet heats up. In 2009, the New York City Panel on Climate Change, appointed by Mayor Bloomberg, concluded that, as a result of global warming, “more frequent and enhanced coastal flooding” was “very likely” and that “shortened 100-year flood recurrence period” was also “very likely.” Much of the problem simply has to do with sea levels—as these rise, any storm or storm surge becomes more dangerous. Marcus Bowman, an oceanography professor at Stony Brook University, has warned that the city could one day have “flood days,” the way it now has snow days.

Too bad that this viewpoint does not find a place on Counterpunch. It would be much more useful than Robert Bryce’s oil industry PR.

August 22, 2011

Notes on Libya

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,Libya — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

Well, I erred back in February when I predicted that there would be no imperialist intervention in Libya. If there’s anything we’ve learned about Libya, it is that crystal ball gazing, even if informed by a Marxist perspective, is prone to error.

Just one month ago, the leading voices of the anti-anti-Qaddafi left were predicting that the rebels were history, chief among them Alexander Cockburn who wrote on July 15:

Recent pro-government rallies in Tripoli have been vast. Libya has a population of about six million, with four million in Tripoli. Gaddafi barrels around the city in an open jeep. Large amounts of AK-47s have been distributed to civilian defense committees. Were they all compelled to demonstrate by Gaddafi’s enforcers? It seems unlikely.

Franklin Lamb, Counterpunch’s correspondent in Tripoli, agreed with that assessment a little over a month ago but has become disabused of it now:

Reports of Saif and Mohammad Qaddafi’s capture supports the idea that the government here wildly exaggerated its solid support and that the public largely believed them.  Already among the few staff and some kids who come early the jump the hotel fence and use the swimming pool, and their trademark chants of “Allah, Mohammad, Muammar, Libya wa bass” have ended their chants and now support for ousting “the leader” is widespread. Most hotel staff at my hotel appear crestfallen.

The outpouring of support for Qaddafi’s departure by the same crowds who seemed to adore him at Green Square the past five months I have been monitoring them is surprising but perhaps reveal why all powerful despots are often more form than substance and can collapse quickly under certain conditions.

One hopes that the anti-anti-Qaddafi left might ruminate on this collapse. With all their constant reminders of how beloved Qaddafi was for creating such a wealthy country based on oil profits, there might be an imperative to think about the importance of freedom over and above material well-being. This is especially true since each and every one of these anti-imperialists are so protective of their own free speech rights when it comes to the FBI and other American repressive forces. Could you imagine what Alexander Cockburn would do if he was arrested for writing an “anti-American” blog and sent to prison for a year? What difference would it make if someone reminded him that America made it possible for him to afford a fleet of classic cars?

Cockburn, who is probably the highest profile member of the anti-anti-Qaddafi left, was rather churlish toward Juan Cole. After the rebels assassinated one of their top military leaders Abdel Fatah Younis, he said the following on July 29:

This is one of the greatest humiliations of NATO in its history (also, to be petty, a terrific smack in the eye for the analytic and political acumen of a prime propagandist in progressive circles for the rebels, Prof. Juan Cole, whose blogs on Libya have been getting steadily more demented.) Incidentally, they keep calling for Ghadafi to “step down.” In constitutional terms, which is what NATO must keep in mind, I believe he did some time ago.

There are two points that must be made here. Younis was Qaddafi’s right-hand man for forty years before joining up with the rebels. As Minister of the Interior, he was in charge of repressing just the kind of people who were now taking orders from him. He was arrested on July 28 for smuggling arms to Qaddafi loyalists. In retrospect, maybe his assassination was more of a sign of rebel strength than weakness. In terms of “constitutional terms”, the only thing that can be said is this. A constitution is not just about the rules and regulations of the executive branch of a government. It is also about the rights of a citizenry to choose that executive. One understands that such niceties might matter little to Alexander, but they do to people who faced prison terms and torture for exercising such rights.

While I disagreed with Juan Cole’s support for NATO intervention, I think—like Gilbert Achcar—that he has made some interesting points about Libya. In fact, unlike those who backed Bush’s war on Iraq (Hitchens, Berman, Makiya et al), neither Cole nor Achcar have broken with the left. I especially recommend Juan Cole’s latest post on Libya titled Top Ten Myths about the Libya War. It should not come as any surprise that I have debunked the same mythology here frequently, including number ten in Cole’s list:

10. This was a war for Libya’s oil. That is daft. Libya was already integrated into the international oil markets, and had done billions of deals with BP, ENI, etc., etc. None of those companies would have wanted to endanger their contracts by getting rid of the ruler who had signed them. They had often already had the trauma of having to compete for post-war Iraqi contracts, a process in which many did less well than they would have liked. ENI’s profits were hurt by the Libyan revolution, as were those of Total SA. and Repsol. Moreover, taking Libyan oil off the market through a NATO military intervention could have been foreseen to put up oil prices, which no Western elected leader would have wanted to see, especially Barack Obama, with the danger that a spike in energy prices could prolong the economic doldrums. An economic argument for imperialism is fine if it makes sense, but this one does not, and there is no good evidence for it (that Qaddafi was erratic is not enough), and is therefore just a conspiracy theory.

While nobody could possibly deny that NATO intervention made the fall of Qaddafi possible, the tendency to write off the rebel campaign as inconsequential must be scrutinized carefully. History will probably record that the battle for Misrata was as critical to the outcome we see today as the battle of Stalingrad was for Russia. And as Juan Cole points out, “Misrata fought an epic, Stalingrad-style, struggle of self-defense against attacking Qaddafi armor and troops, finally proving victorious with NATO help, and then they gradually fought to the west toward Tripoli.”

I would only question whether NATO’s help was key to the rebel victory, although it was certainly a factor. If you take a close look at news reports from late April and early May, there are constant references to NATO’s ineffectiveness. For example, the Daily Telegraph reported on April 19:

NATO forces have a challenging task ahead of them. Gaddafi is astutely destroying Misrata by avoiding the amassing of his forces in a way that makes them vulnerable to allied air attacks. His long-range weapons, which the rebels do not have, suffice for now: more than 50 civilians are killed every day, and there is no escape for the population since Misrata is surrounded on three sides by Gaddafi’s forces, and the sea.

Misrata’s predicament is further complicated by the type of weapons Gaddafi’s forces are deploying. These include Grad surface-to-surface missiles as well as cluster shells which have been banned by most governments. The multiple “bomblets” from these shells are designed to kill and injure groups of massed troops or, in this instance, a highly vulnerable and largely unarmed civilian population.

Despite his superior weaponry and the professionalism of his troops, Qaddafi failed to subdue the rebels who mostly found their own way to victory in Misrata through trial and error as the NY Time’s TJ Chivers reported on his blog.

Those who have spent time among Libya’s rebels will recognize these scenes and the type of young men in them. These men were not professional soldiers when their war began. Rather, they became almost accidental gunmen. They were civilians who, after public demonstrations against Colonel Qaddafi slipped into war, found themselves fighting against their nation’s own army for control of their home city. Sometimes — as here — that fight was carried out house by house.

When such men have put their lives on the line against what they regard as a dictatorship, it might be expected that they would be little inclined to follow orders from a Transitional National Council in Benghazi that was never elected as Alexander Cockburn’s brother Patrick reported on Counterpunch today:

It is an extraordinary situation. The Transitional National Council (TNC) in Benghazi is now recognised by more than 30 foreign governments, including the US and Britain, as the government of Libya. But it is by no means clear that it is recognised as such by the rebel militiamen who are in the process of seizing the capital. The rebel fighters in Misrata, who fought so long to defend their city, say privately that they have no intention of obeying orders from the TNC. Their intransigence may not last but it is one sign that the insurgents are deeply divided.

Well, if the division is between those who are in the overwhelming majority and who have taken risks with their lives on the battlefield and those notables in Benghazi who are on the phone each day with the CIA, it not only seems understandable but one that the left should not have any trouble picking sides on. Yesterday the Guardian reported:

Tensions are inevitable in a revolutionary administration starting from the ground up, but the confusion and bickering in the aftermath of the killing bode ill for the NTC’s claim to be a government of all Libyans.

This claim has already been all but rejected by Misrata, Libya’s third city, whose inhabitants are scathing of Jalil’s rule and of the poor performance of NTC army units. Commanders in Misrata recently underlined to journalists that they do not accept instructions from the NTC.

Jalil’s task of imposing order will suffer further because his forces in the east of the country played no part in the twin rebel offensives now closing on Tripoli.

It is rebels in the west – from the Nafusa mountains and Misrata – that have captured Zawiya, 30 miles west of the capital, Garyan, 40 miles south and Zlitan, 80 miles to the west. Their commanders and politicians will, if they storm the Libyan capital, demand a greater say in what is currently a Benghazi-centred administration.

Speaking of rebels in the west, the full story of Berber fighters has yet to be told but an article in today’s Los Angeles Times marks a significant step in that direction:

The uprising in the Nafusa Mountains was so little noticed early on that the fighting often barely merited mention as the world focused on dramatic events in and around Benghazi and Misurata.

In the end, however, the western rebels’ tenacity and proximity to Tripoli seemed crucial in breaking down what the government had long boasted was a virtually impregnable wall of security around the capital.

As insurgent offensives stalled near Benghazi and Misurata, fighters made up of Arabs and ethnic Berbers, or Amazigh, tenaciously gained ground in the west. There is no indication the western fighters possessed superior firepower or were better trained than their undisciplined comrades in the east. But geography was certainly an ally.

In the east, rebels struggled to move forward in flat desert terrain that proved advantageous for Kadafi’s artillery and rocket launchers, often well concealed from allied aircraft. In contrast, the western fighters engaged in a guerrilla war on turf that was intimately familiar to them. Supplies arrived via a captured post on the Tunisian border.

By June, the mountain fighters had largely gained control of the highlands and were filtering into the plains that led to the coast and the capital, the ultimate prize. Tribal links to lowland populations probably aided their advance. Government officials in Tripoli betrayed no sense of alarm.

And, finally, a July 16 article from the same newspaper explains why they joined the revolution. It speaks volumes about the potential of this movement to transform society:

Kadafi has ruthlessly denied the existence of Libyan Berbers, even insisting on calling them Arabs during a rare June 2008 visit to the mountains and allegedly orchestrating a violent attack on the town of Yafran later that year.

“You can call yourselves whatever you want inside your homes — Berbers, children of Satan, whatever — but you are only Libyans when you leave your homes,” a contact of the U.S. Embassy said Kadafi had privately told the leaders of the community, according to a State Department document published by WikiLeaks.

“Tamazight was forbidden. You might lose your life or freedom if you spoke out for your rights,” said Abdullah Funas, a Libyan Berber who previously served as a diplomat and now is an opposition leader in the mountain town of Jadu. “We spoke it in our homes and that’s it.”

Kadafi and his deputies tried to play the two groups against each other.

“When he’s coming to us, he was saying, ‘Watch out for the Berber; he wants to run you out of the western mountains,'” said Mokhtar Fakhal, a town elder in Zintan. “When he went to the Berbers, he would say, ‘Watch out for the Arab; you were here first.’ That’s why we hated each other.”

Berbers in these mountains said they were inspired to wholeheartedly join the uprising that began in mid-February when they saw the Arabs put aside decades of privileges Kadafi had bestowed upon them and join the rebellion that began in the country’s east.

Zintan and Kikla, another Arab town, “from the very first day decided they would use their weapons against Kadafi,” Bouzakher said.

Now Arabs openly call for Berber language rights. Arabs and Berbers train together on military bases in preparation for battle. They join up on front lines.

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