Lineages of the Absolutist State

…nil nisi bonum. —The Seven Sages

Got it! Alexander Cockburn died two years ago. And that, one would’ve thought, was that. But earlier this year, Perry Anderson decided to pick at the scab. His gassy, 19-page elegy for Cockburn is, of course, not worth reading; worse, I found it the entry point to the tour of a witless horizon. “With the posthumous publication of A Colossal Wreck, the triptych for which Alexander Cockburn will be remembered is complete,” reads the first sentence. It seems unlikely. Cockburn made a career of quick bursts of venom. Even in small doses, his writing was toxic. For Anderson to declare that it is for this that someone will be remembered, or even whether someone will be remembered at all shows that he hasn’t learned much from his many years. The “triptych” is a nice touch, though, very much in the tradition of Leonid Brezhnev’s Trilogy, which gathered dust in Russian bookstores during the Soviet Union’s last years, which Cockburn described as a Golden Age for the Soviet working class. Anderson devotes first few pages to a long appreciation of Claud Cockburn, the noted Stalinist wit and father of Alexander. Alexander was a good family man. But he was, foremost, a writer. Anderson praises him—sounding like a character in a David Lynch movie—for his “incomparable zing.” After Cockburn published something, “The response was electric.” He writes that “Alexander gave Reagan no mercy, in one blistering entry after another.” If Monty Python’s Black Knight ever needs a squire, now Cockburn’s gone, Perry Anderson’s still around. There are pages of blather about the man behind the turgid prose, with loopy phrases like “his debonair swathe” and “his feeling for l’Amérique profonde.” In fact, there was one interesting thing about Cockburn. It is possible to find ardent latter-day Stalinists, who affect a style, particularly sartorially, that announces their revolutionary purity. Cockburn captured the authentic 30’s manner: the bon vivant revolutionary. Perry Anderson is reliably oblivious. He writes about Cockburn’s collection of classic cars, an odd hobby for an arch-radical. For Anderson, it’s just more proof of Cockburn’s largeness of spirit. He tells us that, “His only close friends in New York were marginal to it: Edward Said, Palestinian in a fastness of Zionism; Andy Kopkind, gay out of New England; Ben Sonnenberg, cripple amid a forest of gyms.” Marginal? Said was probably the most celebrated academic in New York and an enormous cultural presence beyond the academy. New York is a magnet for both gay men and people from elsewhere in the country. And gimps are all over New York, if this deucey could be bothered to look. If you asked Perry Anderson what day it is, would he know?

If you asked him what was wrong with Cockburn, he wouldn’t know, and wouldn’t say. Over 30 years ago, I had my own moment with Cockburn’s writing. In 1981, I came across two old Cockburn columns. One was his last column before the 1980 election. He talked about how interesting a Reagan presidency might have been. Jimmy Carter’s re-election was a foregone conclusion. He called the election wrong. So did lots of people. But Cockburn’s sheer certitude was a thing apart. And being so wrong gave the lie to Cockburn’s pose; the truth-teller immune to ideology and bourgeois mystification. Cockburn proved to be some hybrid of David Gergen and an alley cat.

The other column picked up on a statement Brezhnev released in fall of 1979. He announced that he was, in the interest of peace, reducing the number of Soviet troops in East Berlin, and invited NATO to reciprocate. Cockburn applauded the statement and lambasted the American press for failing to trumpet Brezhnev’s statement. When, weeks later, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan, Cockburn declared that Afghanistan deserved to be raped. From Brezhnev to Milosevic to various Arab bully-boys, Cockburn had a soft spot for tyranny and genocide.

A squalid career. He disserved human liberty.

In the May 23-25, 2014 edition of CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names, Cockburn’s last great project, we find, to take one example at random—I swear—a piece by John V. Walsh, “The Faux Cry for Democracy,” subtitled “Why are Russia and China (and Iran) Paramount Enemies For the U.S. Ruling Elite?” It is a spirited defense of all three regimes. “Does it not seem strange,” he begins, “that, with the Cold War long over, the Paramount Enemies of the United States remain Russia and China?” Actually, it’s the stilted language that seems strange. Why “Paramount Enemies” with capitals? And what sense does the word “remain” make? Boris Yeltsin’s Russia was not considered any type of opponent. The managed democracy of Vladimir Putin, the proud Chekist, who has publicly expressed his nostalgia for the glory days of Lenin and Stalin, was never likely to be a friend. And China does not fit comfortably within the Cold War context. The risk of an actual war was always between the US and the USSR. In the last years of the Cold War, the US and China were often on the same side, China the more hawkishly and single-mindedly anti-Soviet. The supposed End of History was the moment the Wall came down in Berlin—while the rulers remained firmly, and bloodily, in power in Beijing. Relations with China have had their seasons, but they have hardly remained one thing. Among the three powers there has been rivalry, opposition, hostility, but Paramount Enemies is either Walsh’s fantasy or Google Translate.

He goes on: “And there is no doubt that Russia and China hold this pariah status in the eyes of the U.S. imperial elite.” No doubt! Does he understand the word “pariah?” The American embassies in Moscow and Beijing are major diplomatic postings. The American presence in Afghanistan and in space depend on Russian co-operation. China, as creditor and exporter of consumer goods has become integral to the American economy. The word “imperial” is unsurprising in this context, and untrue. “Elite” is odd. Is there a single elite, and who comprises it? There are corporate interests, for instance, that are distinguishable from those who hold political power, and there are fluctuations among the political class, from one administration to another. And is it strictly the elite that feels some antipathy toward Russia, China, and Iran? You are unlikely to find a portrait of Putin or Khamenei on the wall in a honky-tonk. Back when Iran was threatening to kill American diplomatic personnel, it was pretty common to see Fuck Iran as graffiti or on t-shirts, yet Cyrus Vance never once included the phrase in any official statement. “In the last months we have watched the U.S. try to push Russia East[sic] and tear it apart.” Please: enjoy the moment. “In fact it is striking that the U.S. has allied itself with neo-Nazism in Ukraine and Japanese militarism on the other side of Asia.” If any of it were true, it would, in fact, be striking. Neo-Nazi opinion—far more a specter than a force—leans heavily in favor of Putin, the most ruthless, powerful, unapologetically white political figure in the world. And Brother Walsh might want to look up the term red-brown alliance sometime. And Japanese “militarism” (“on the other side of Asia”, opposite Ukraine, that mysterious Asiatic Shangri-la) is another bogeyman. If Japan re-arms, it will not be bombing Hawaii,

“The riddle finds its answer,” he tells us, in the struggle against neo-colonialism. He asks, “How do Russia and China fit into this sweep of history?” (And I ask, Where is the Sandman when you need him?) Then comes the history lesson. “That inter-imperial war [World War I] precipitated the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, with the simple call for ‘Bread, land, and peace.'” World War I, which was an inter-imperial war only inter alia, led rather to the February Revolution. It was only after the Kaiser’s Abwehr had sent V. I. Ulyanov to Russia that he was able to marshal his minority faction of the Social Democratic Party and stage a coup, at gunpoint, in November. The new regime withdrew from the war, entirely on the terms set by Germany. Money well spent. (The—perfunctory—American intervention is, predictably, invoked.) The “simple call” grew up to be a slogan. The reality was famine, expropriations from the peasantry (followed not long after by the effective re-imposition of serfdom), and civil war.

“The Bolsheviks were deadly serious.” True. “They took Russia and then the rest of the USSR out of the Western orbit, out of the ambit of the Western colonial powers, and they brought industrial development to their backward land.” The bland “then the rest of the USSR” is an evasion. With the fall of the Tsar, the non-Russian parts of the Empire were freed to go their own way. As soon as the Soviet state had the military power, it reconquered the old Empire (except for Poland, where after a campaign of total war against the civilian population, Russian forces were militarily defeated). There was never any “Western orbit” to be taken out of, only Great Russian domination. Russia became more industrialized—no surprise—in the Twentieth Century. But the rate of industrial growth was greater before 1914 (just as agricultural productivity has never come close to pre-war levels). And the industrial growth achieved by the Soviet state was at the cost of exactions more savage than anything in Victorian capitalism. And Brother Walsh, model anti-imperialist that he is, might want to be a little careful with a phrase like “backward land.” That gun is loaded.

More: “In the end Russia became a great power and it remained out of the orbit of the West for over 70 years.” Over a hundred years before the “Bolshevik Revolution,” Napoleon led an international force against the Prisonhouse of Nations. Images of his army, frozen and defeated in the vastness of Russia, are familiar. Less familiar are images of the Tsar’s triumphal entry into Paris. One reads Walsh’s foolishness and wonders, wasn’t there an editor, who would…SLAP!. This is Alexander Cockburn’s paper.

Okay, a little more. I can stop anytime, I promise. “Socialism and Communism were not achieved…And that is a thing that disturbs most Left wing or ‘progressive’ [the square quotes here for all the wrong reasons] to this day, most notably the Trotskyites [impeccable Stalinist usage: check] and their ideological fellow travelers mired in the past [Uh…].” And then: “A proud independence, an escape from poverty and a severing of almost all institutional and economic ties with the West became accomplished facts in Russia. There were no old school ties between the two.” Even so. They ordered these things better in Democratic Kampuchea.

Anyway, that’s what discourse on the left is looking like this week.

Anderson’s penultimate paragraph sums up Cockburn “as an individual.” He lays it on with a trowel: “grace and elan, a revolutionary sprezzatura all his own,” “a three-dimensional materialism come to life.” It goes on. There’s a scene in Carlos that shows Carlos, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, in his Orson Welles phase, partying hard with a roomful of grotesques in Khartoum. The scene is based on actual footage. There (it’s a DVD extra), what Carlos is getting down to is the Lambada. In one tribute to Cockburn, there’s a reminiscence of Cockburn at a party in New York. He whispers something in Noam Chomsky’s ear, which elicits a belly laugh from Chomsky. Savor the picture: two gargoyles. For Perry Anderson, Alexander Cockburn was the New Man. “Exceptional temperaments like his are beyond imitation.” We can be happy that Perry Anderson’s political hopes have always come, will always come, to nothing.

We must be unsurprised that he doesn’t know it. His last paragraph is his cheery wave farewell. What put that silly grin on his face are three newish magazines; n+1, Jacobin, and Endnotes.

It’s better to be gentle with n+1. They’ve stated an ambition to be a contemporary Partisan Review (a questionable, if understandable, goal). As a political journal, though, it seems unlikely to work. The writers associated with Partisan Review, and the New York Intellectuals more broadly, could be generally classified as literary intellectuals, but very few were creative writers themselves. n+1 is largely a literary magazine that dabbles in politics. It would be ridiculous to describe the Partisan Review writers as forged in struggle—but it is not quite untrue. They had most of them been active in politics, often as members of one small group or another, and they had formed in a cultural context where the CPUSA was a daunting presence.

Looking to n+1 for guidance would be…premature.

It’s not just Anderson. The Times has talked Jacobin up. The dead generations weigh like an Alp on the brains of the living, according to The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon; and the publishers of Jacobin seem to have been affected, too The website is snazzy. Let’s look at a random article.

A Corey Robin, at https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/05/when-intellectuals-go-to-war/, begins his critique of pro-war intellectuals by quoting a letter written by Arnold Schoenberg that is quoted in a book by Alex Ross. If Mr. Robin detects any dissonance here—immersion in the New Yorker culture pages, the scaffold dripping gore—he keeps mum. But really, he starts his blog post with these words: “On the recommendation of my colleague Shang Ha…” If Mr. Robin ever gets a tattoo, he will leave room for acknowledgments. He goes on to describe a debate between Michael Ignatieff and Jonathan Schell. There was “a wonderful moment in the run-up [that annoying Britishism] to the Iraq War.” In the typescript of The Waste Land, Vivienne Eliot wrote in the margin of some hellish passage, “Wonderful!” This “wonderful moment” isn’t as spooky. It is fun, though. “Ignatieff,” he says, “was being especially nasty mocking Schell for saying something like ‘the peoples of the earth’ had said no to war.” Isn’t mockery superfluous? “Which, given the international character of the protests of 15 February [another Britishism] 2003 wasn’t wide of the mark.” See a discussion of this issue in a review of Afflicted Powers published in this paper: yes, way wide. “But then Schell gave it right back to Ignatieff.” More nastiness? Wait for it. Schell said, A state goes to war for its reasons. Von Moltke famously almost said that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Political aims, a state’s reasons, do, but not by much. Schell’s argument is untrue because undialectical, and undialectical, as it happens, because untrue.

Mr. Robin’s other posts are no better. There is a rote invocation of “mass murder.” Not every killing is a murder. Trotting out the label is less than an argument. Better to avoid the word, unless moral preening is your only concern. Here, one gathers, if an American soldier kills someone in combat, that’s murder. If A Ba’thi kills a civilian, well, if you can’t shrug your shoulders, what are they there for? In another post, he lauds George Steiner, singling out an essay titled, “To Civilize Our Gentlemen.” Funnily enough, in the very first issue of First of the Month, a recent book by Steiner was reviewed. The reviewer there also singled out that very essay, commenting that the title inspired “a smile and the thought of a rope.” I think that reviewer has the better of the argument. The smile lingers, the thought endures.

Mr. Robin also has some posts in praise of Cockburn. He calls one Cockburn article “hilarious.” Do people really think things are hilarious? The word, in practice, means labored, gesturing at cleverness, not remotely funny. It does suit Cockburn.

Mr. Robin, at one point, concedes that Cockburn’s remarks about rape and Afghanistan are “unconscionable.” Words mean something, they say; people might not.

Who killed cock robin? Nobody, yet.

Readers can judge Endnotes for themselves. Compared to the other two magazines, it is quite serious—more: deadly earnest.

Anderson’s last paragraph also contains a critique of Obama. Jacobin, he complains, “managed [!] to publish…an inconspicuous summons to its readers to vote for Obama.” They would; you’d expect that. They were mistaken; you’d expect that. Anderson is dead time; you’d expect that. He also complains that n+1 “curtsied bashfully to the Lord of the Drones.” Whatever criticisms, and there are plenty, might be made of Obama and the drone war, no good ones will come from Perry Anderson. Instead, he will offer phrases like Lord of the Drones: bad prose, dishonesty, non-thought. He knows his audience. But no useful criticism will be had from Anderson.

Worse than Obama himself has been his reception, an ardent embrace of unfreedom. The early talk of healing planets and who you been waiting for is long gone. But the delusion has modulated, not disappeared. Today, debates are over and claim is laid to the “right side of history”—implicitly, an assertion that one know the future, and for that matter, which end is up. The fact that an American president—or any GAO number—can, without being shouted down, say publicly, “The future [sic] must [sic] not belong [sic] to those who slander [sic] the prophet [sic] of Islam” speaks poorly of our time. In 2009, Rocco Landesman declared triumphantly that “Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar.” But Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, by way of counter-example, were all published authors, and each was far more powerful than any Chief Executive of the United States. There was a time in American history when the memory of Brutus was honored. To compare an American President to Julius Caesar would have been taken as an incitement to violence. Caesar, it will be recalled, destroyed the Roman republic. Even earlier, Cato the Lesser advocated turning him over to the Gauls to answer not for his crimes against Rome, but for his genocidal wars against Rome’s neighbors. And Caesar, the writer, has lived on as easy classroom Latin, Cicero for Dummies. Today, though, he’s a pure positive. Glamour and power are their own justification.

Men make their own history, but they do not make it exactly as they wish. No, in the current climate, they make it as they are directed. Two photos nicely capture our moment. One was taken in the Oval Office and purports to show the moment when the “historic” deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran was signed. Obama is on the phone, two jubilant courtiers in suits pump their fists in the air. The fact that the arrangement is a sure loser is almost the least of it. That Iran’s rulers live, that they have lived for thirty-five years is a loss to the world. Anything that they can accept ought to pain us. Another feature of the photo is the certainty that it was staged.

The other photo is last year’s Pajamas Boy ad. The text reads, “Wear pajamas. Drink hot chocolate. Talk about getting health insurance.” That the ad relies on irony—if it even does—is dispiriting enough. But the role of the citizen, a people’s forging of its own destiny, has been reduced to trooping to a polling location on Election Day, and logging on to a website when and as instructed. Wi mekkin histri. Not quite. A birthright has been traded not even for a mess of pottage, but a cup of cocoa. Left iconography has in the past shown a figure with an arm raised, with gun in hand, or Molotov cocktail, even just a fist. Today, pajamas and a children’s drink are considered sufficient.

Well. A world to win, Alexander Cockburn liked to say. Not so quick. First, a world to be taken apart, piece by piece. Then we can talk.

From June, 2014

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