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Out of Step With the Left and Right

Americas political landscape is drearier now that two cantankerous radicals are gone.

Late July saw the deaths of Alexander Cockburn (b. 1941), a radical muckraking journalist, and Gore Vidal (b. 1925), historical novelist, essayist, playwright, and two-time political candidate. Each was something of a one-man political tendency –viewing himself as of the Left, as it’s called, but willing to question leftist assumptions and engage with those inhabiting that other imaginary political zone, the Right.

To the purebred liberal or conservative, with feet planted squarely on the either bank of the Mainstream, the politics of Cockburn and of Vidal could seem irresponsible, irrelevant, or just irritating. Loyal Democrats never forgave either man for supporting Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election.

The liberal magazine American Prospect still nurses that wound; its editor Harold Meyerson bluntly titled his Cockburn obituary, “The Man Who Hated Liberals,” writing that, “contempt for liberals and social democrats was a hallmark of Cockburn’s work . . . it informed, if that’s the word, [his] attacks on Al Gore and his paeans to Ralph Nader during the 2000 presidential campaign.”

The (more or less) liberal New Republic gave Vidal an even rougher going-over in its obituary, “Where Have All Our Racist Aristocrats Gone?” –and reminded readers of old Vidal feuds related to his criticism of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians; a position he shared with Cockburn, and which earned them the label of “anti-Semite.”

Conservative magazines were not especially sad to see them go, either; The Weekly Standard, begins its obituary of Vidal with guns ablaze: “The most puzzling thing about the career of Gore Vidal, who went toes-up last week at 86, was the reverence in which he was held by people who might have known better.”

Yet there were also those on the Right who were fond of Vidal or Cockburn: some liked how they regularly laid into liberals, while a few thought that behind the radicalism was a true conservative yearning to breathe free. “Libertarians” (anarcho-capitalists), in particular, viewed Vidal and Cockburn as kindred souls. Justin Raimondo, founder of the libertarian website, antiwar.com, praised Vidal as the “last Jeffersonian”. And he questioned the use of the term, “radical leftist” in obituaries of Cockburn (who was briefly an antiwar.com columnist): “He was radical, all right, but as for the ‘leftist’–I have my doubts”; describing him instead as “a paleo-radical who had survived long enough to be considered a reactionary.”

The obituaries of Vidal and Cockburn written by the “radical leftists” themselves were full of praise and a few criticisms. The International Socialist Organization hailed Vidal as an “uncompromising critic of America’s rulers” on its website (socialistworker.org), while noting that his “politics were not without their flaws.” The same organization praised Cockburn as a “modern-day muckraker” who “never stopped speaking truth to power,” but proceeded to list a number of “points where we . . . disagreed with him, sometimes very sharply.” Indeed, Cockburn deviated sharply from the radical Left a final time just weeks before his own death when he pronounced the Occupy movement dead of its own incoherence.

This talent Vidal and Cockburn had for winning friends and enemies across the Left and Right divide struck many as contrarianism in the style of Christopher Hitchens, their erstwhile comrade. But their politics were more radical and coherent than Hitchens’s ever were, even in his lefty prime, and their apparent “contrarianism” was more a result of sticking to their guns than seeking attention for its own sake (although both relished a good fight).

The populist and the radical
Vidal and Cockburn were not political clones by any means. A difference between them in background and generation clearly affected their politics. Vidal’s starting point was the Democratic Party at the tail-end of the New Deal, while Cockburn came out of the radicalism of the 1960s. One noteworthy similarity is that the politics and personal ambitions of each were strongly influenced by a close family member.

For Gore Vidal, the influential figure was his grandfather Thomas Gore, a Democratic Party senator for the state of Oklahoma (1907–21; 1931–37). As a child, Vidal spent countless hours reading to his blind grandfather from weighty tomes on bimetallism and constitutional history or from The Congressional Record. Through this political education Vidal assimilated the political outlook of Senator Gore, which had been shaped by his participation in the short-lived People’s Party (‘Populist’) movement of the 1890s. This had arisen out of southern farmers’anger against the power of northern railway monopolies and banks. Even after joining other Populists in ‘fusing’ with the Democratic Party, Gore continued to oppose banking and railroad interests, and he voted against the party leadership at crucial times (to his own political detriment): he opposed Woodrow Wilson’s call for involvement in World War I and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. On top of this, he was an unabashed atheist. But whether Thomas Gore belongs on the Left or Right is anyone’s guess. The senator’s fiscal conservatism would win cheers from today’s Tea Partiers, certainly, but his blaspheming the Holy Trinity (war, banks, and God) would sound like ‘commie-talk’ to the ears of the Republican and Democratic faithful.

By the late 1940s, when Gore Vidal gained fame as a novelist, there were not many populists in the mould of Thomas Gore left in the Democratic Party. But Vidal remained a Democrat, even running for Congress on the Democratic ticket in 1960 (on a platform of taxing the rich) and in a Senate primary in 1982. Vidal did not simply inherit his grandfather’s beliefs: he was no foe of the welfare state, as was clear from his campaigns. Yet the general influence of the old Populist politics is unmistakable. And in interviews Vidal often described his politics as Populist, bewildering anyone who knew his patrician ways better than his politics.

In the early 1970s, Vidal co-chaired the anti-war ‘People’s Party’coalition, and was already saying around the time that, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party . . . and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” In subsequent years, Vidal in his political activity and writing was consistently opposed to American militarism and empire-building. The gradual transformation of the United States from a “republic into an empire,” as Vidal puts it (as do libertarians), was the central theme of his Narratives of Empire series of historical novels, for which he is best known as a writer.

For Alexander Cockburn, the influential family member was his father, Claud, a radical journalist who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and stayed with that outfit until 1947. At the time of Alexander’s birth, Claud was editing a muckraking newsletter called The Week, described by Graham Greene as the intellectual inspiration for Private Eye, which Cockburn also edited, in the 1960s.

Cockburn idolized and modeled himself after his father, whom he called the “greatest radical journalist of his age”; this influence determined his decision to enter journalism. In the 1960s, Cockburn worked for the New Statesmen and other publications in London, where he was also on the editorial board of New Left Review.  In 1972 he moved to the United States, where he wrote first for the Village Voice and later for dozens of other publications, including The Nation, for which he wrote his long-running column, Beat the Devil (named after Claud Cockburn’s pulp novel of the same title). And in the 1990s, he also started to edit the muckraking newsletter (and website) CounterPunch.

Alexander Cockburn tended to make light of Claud’s rather long time spent in a Communist Party, usually by recounting one of the humorous anecdotes his father had told him of that experience. He recalled, for instance, how his father once encountered a jargon-riddled passage in the Daily Worker: “The lower organs of the Party must make even greater efforts to penetrate the more backward parts of the proletariat,”and worried it “would be construed by the masses as a dirty joke.”Such anecdotes seemed intended to underscore how Claud was a most unorthodox Communist –and, of course, to get a laugh.

But the joke falls a bit flat when we see how the dead weight of dear old Dad’s “Old Left” dogma held Alexander back, at times. For all his exposure to Sixties radicalism, there was a soft spot in Cockburn’s heart for Communists and he quoted Lenin enthusiastically right up to the end. Worst of all, he mistook some of the state-capitalist countries for post-capitalist ones, an assumption that was fatal to his ability to understand the meaning of socialism. Cockburn’s criticism of the Occupy movement just before he died applies equally to his own reform-focused politics:

“There also seemed to be a serious level of political naivety about the shape of the society they were seeking to change. They definitely thought that it could be reshaped –the notion that the whole system was unfixable did not get much of a hearing.”

And often the twain shall meet

Despite their different political backgrounds, there are key positions that Cockburn and Vidal held in common. First, both opposed US militarism and its wars around the globe. They also denounced the erosion of civil liberties and authoritarian abuses of the state. The third principle that animated their politics was an opposition to ‘corporate power’ –particularly the power of large banks.

All three of these positions would seem to merit the Leftist label for them, but a second thought (and the memory of Senator Gore!) might even raise some doubts on this score.

Anti-war would seem a Lefty view, certainly, but the ‘isolationists’were associated with the Right. And in the eyes of Leftists, there have always been good and bad wars. Opposing corporations would seem a sure mark in the Left column, again. But the old Populist’s opposition to banking and railroad giants reflected the interests of agricultural capital. And today as well, opposing big business can be the ideology of the small-fry capitalist struggling to become a big shot. Even in the case of civil liberties, one could point to how Leftists often lead the charge against ‘hate speech’ and call on the state to limit the expression of ‘dangerous ideas.’

The dividing line between Left and Right on a specific issue seems clear at a given time, but it is always shifting over time, revealing the essential meaningless of the two categories. None of that seems to matter much to reformist activists on both sides who judge your politics according to what positions are taken on the ‘hot-button’ issues of today, adding up the checks in the Left and Right columns to calculate your political score.

The positions Vidal and Cockburn took on some of the issues of the day certainly had Leftists scratching their heads in confusion, or their chins in suspicion.

One example was their indifference (but not outright opposition) to gay marriage, which both found a boring issue. Vidal’s position came as a surprise to many, for he was an open “homosexualist” (with prickly precision he thought the term ‘homosexual’ should only describe the act and not define the person), had fought against homophobia long before it was a popular cause and lived for decades with his partner Howard Austen. The reasons Vidal and Cockburn gave for their position were the exact opposite of the right-wing view that gay marriage “threatened the sanctity of marriage.” Vidal quipped that “heterosexual marriage is such a disaster, why would anyone want to imitate it?” And Cockburn said it would make more sense to “figure out how to relieve heterosexuals of the outdated shackles of matrimony,” while ridiculing the Right’s notion gay marriage would, “bring the whole edifice of Western civilization crashing down.”Even though their position on gay marriage is glibly expressed, and its practical consequences for individuals are dubious, it was nonetheless based on a radical view of marriage (in general) as a reactionary institution.

Another jaw-dropper for Leftists was Cockburn’s position on global warming, namely his belief that, “There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of carbon dioxide is making any measurable contribution to the world's present warming trend.” This is of course a scientific issue, not a narrow political one and must be judged on scientific grounds. But however cranky his science, Cockburn’s political reasoning on the issue is, again, that of a radical. He described the “turn to climate catastrophism” as “tied to the decline of the left’s optimistic vision of altering the economic nature of things through a political programme” and its belief that the “emergency response [to a catastrophe] will lead to positive developments in terms of social and environmental justice”; whereas Cockburn believed “environmental catastrophism will - in fact it already has - play into the hands of the sinister-as-always corporate interests.”

Even at their cantankerous worst, which was when their wit was often best, Vidal and Cockburn held positions that were arrived at through independent thought. But in reformist politics the reasons a person gives for a position matters less than the political company he or she seems to keep in holding it.

Not radical enough?
Whyis a question the media are trained to shy away from. Too dangerous. One might actually learn why something had happened and become thoughtful.”(Gore Vidal)

The willingness to ask that question, even when it might lead in an uncomfortable direction, brought Vidal and Cockburn into conflict with Leftists, not to mention liberals and conservatives. That is not to imply that they always arrived at a convincing answer. (Vidal in particular was far too willing to flirt with conspiracy theories during his last decade.) In posing dangerous questions, though, they shook many out of their complacency; in their writings, one senses an independent, probing mind in action.

Yet despite this fearless questioning of assumptions, I don’t think either asked enough (or good enough) “why questions.” Even when they grasped why something had happened, they did not necessarily “become thoughtful”enough to recognize why similar somethings kept happening, over and over. Not why this or that war occurred, for example, but why war itself continually springs from the soil of capitalism, or why economic crises reoccur ever few years. Instead, they were too prone, as they tirelessly raked through the muck of American society, to pin the blame on rotten individuals or a public too apathetic to stop them.

By not asking the second, third, or fourth “why” question”so as to dig down to the root of a problem, Vidal and Cockburn were not as radical, in the literal sense of the word, as they should have been; they remained reformists who only sought to reshape capitalism. Vidal and Cockburn could have learned useful things from genuine socialists about questioning their own political and social assumptions.

But socialists have much to learn from Vidal and Cockburn, too. Their way of expressing unpopular or controversial ideas with verve and confidence is worth emulating; as is their ability to write in jargon-free English for a wide audience without spoon-feeding the content or sacrificing wit; and having skin thick enough to weather criticism, and a pen sharp enough to pierce it. All of these qualities are useful to ‘contrarians’ propagating the still unpopular idea that capitalism must be replaced by a new form of society.