Alexander Cockburn and the fantasy of the radical Left

“I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one. . . .”

CounterPunch first published one of my articles in September 1998, when Ken Silverstein’s name graced the masthead with Alexander Cockburn’s.[1] Jeff St Clair was writing for the magazine, and serving as Cockburn’s helper, but had yet to achieve equal billing as co-editor.

There were a few regular contributors, some of whom are still around. People like Vijay Prashad, Dave Marsh, and Patrick Cockburn. It was a small operation—a dozen articles a month on average—and Cockburn and St Clair co-authored many of them.

CP was making the transition from mainly print to mainly internet in those formative years. In later years a contributor might receive $50 for a piece in the bi-weekly newsletter that was sent to subscribers. But being published in CP twelve years ago was primarily, as it is now, a means for authors and activists to get some publicity. Whenever I published an article there, I sold a few books on Amazon.

There was a spirit of camaraderie, and Jeff St Clair and I formed a friendship. Through that relationship I also fell into Alexander Cockburn’s good graces, to the extent that he ranked my book, The Phoenix Program, as one the top 100 books of 20th Century.[2]

The turning point for the magazine was 9–11. St Clair and I exchanged emails that fateful morning, speculating that the MOSSAD was behind the attacks. No one else was going to profit from the tragedy, we agreed.

Little did I know that 9–11 would also set CP on the road to success.

While the country and most of the media embraced the Patriot Act and Eternal War on Terror, Cockburn and St Clair courageously bucked the trend. And for that they deserve credit. Few other magazines were resisting the belligerent nationalism that had griped the country. And so, ironically, CP’s readership began to expand in direct proportion to the American empire’s excesses, as more and more people became aware of its horrors. St Clair emailed me regularly with reports of the increasing number of hits the website was getting. He was very proud.

Alas, this is a big part of the problem of the so-called American Left: the institutions and individuals that use that label to sell themselves to the public tend to develop a parasitical relationship with the National Security State. They vehemently and sincerely protest its outrages, while developing into profitable businesses that would wither and die without it. And that tension creates contradictions.

A different type of problem, also due its burgeoning popularity, arose at CounterPunch in the aftermath of 9–11. Although he was largely responsible for the magazine’s success, St Clair complained that Cockburn treated him like a “slave,” never said “thanks,” and degraded him in a dozen different ways. He privately called his boss an “asshole.”

The earnest Midwestern lad—part Tom Seaver, part Gary Snyder—had discovered that his imperious benefactor was abusive. Cockburn had given him his big break, yes: but fame came with a heavy price. On one occasion, St Clair was so traumatized by one of Cockburn’s indignities that he punched the wall.

In subsequent years, as I began to deal with a broader spectrum of ostensibly “Leftist” writers and editors, I discovered that St Clair’s experience as by no means unusual. And this is another one of the major problems of the so-called American Left: the inherent hypocrisy of its leaders. What Byron referred to as cant.

Which brings me to the grand puja of cant and rant, Alexander Cockburn.

Despite his pretensions to being egalitarian, and Irish, Cockburn was a typical English public schoolboy bully of the verbal variety. Having no physical courage to speak of, he concentrated on acquiring a large vocabulary at Oxford, where, unlike Shelly, who got himself expelled for refusing to acknowledge a supreme being, Cockburn towed the party line. He majored in the snide put down and embarked on a career of compulsively reinforcing his own delusions of grandeur by abusing his intellectual inferiors, which in his opinion included everyone.

Cockburn emigrated to America and took a job with the Wall Street Journal. What else should one have expected from a descendant of lord and lady colonialists, to the manner born? Snobbery infected his every fiber, and the WSJ suited his station in life.

Cockburn could be magnanimous and encouraging when it suited his purposes, but only if one deferred. His mean streak emerged the moment he felt his eminence was threatened. Such it is with the upper classes, with their inbred racism and sexism.

As for St Clair, when he realized he had to quit CounterPunch or submit, he chose ignoble notoriety over noble anonymity. He adopted Cockburn’s code, heart and soul.

That cruel code, according to St Clair, was “Never apologize. Never explain.”

The “never apologize, never explain” philosophy of life is a weapon that serves only those in power. It negates the need for self-awareness and critical analysis. As the epitome of Plato’s lie of the soul, it erodes intellectual integrity. It is the fatal disease that has poisoned the leadership of the so-called America Left, and turned it into an army of egomaniacal opportunists.

As one of the leaders of the so-called American Left, Alexander Cockburn—like any other tyrant in control of the means of production—concealed any genuine radical message behind a smokescreen of overblown verbiage.

In his declining years he routinely belittled Fidel Castro—the man of vision and physical courage who organized and led a revolution, fought and killed counter-revolutionaries, and led the tiny nation of Cuba through 50 years of social evolution, all the time battling the United States. (Almost as repulsive is the behavior of CounterPunch contributors who, although aware of Cockburn’s disrespect for Castro and other Latin American revolutionaries, continued to seek his approbation—because they needed the publicity.)

In return for publicly denouncing revolutionaries like Castro, often in thinly veiled racist terms, the Establishment media labeled Cockburn a radical Leftist leader. He accepted the title (in lieu of duke, earl, or marquis, one assumes) and during his reign, whenever necessary, helped his patrons neutralize any revolutionary impulses the so-called American Left endured.

Again, Cockburn was no different than the vast majority of the self-serving, self-anointed leaders of the so-called American Left. Almost invariably, with any success, they affect the mannerisms of the despots they profess to despise. Given the tiniest bit of influence, they instantly exploit it, with few exceptions. And their supplicants gratefully consume the crumbs they are thrown.

Cockburn, I repeat, was no exception. Reactionary beliefs dwelled at the core of his snotty, gin-soaked English soul. As a result, his love life suffered. His marriage ended after five short years, and his Establishment girlfriend left him for neoconservative hero George Will. That hurt, and eventually he hooked up with a Russian woman, as so many American men do, in the hopes that mindless obedience would follow. Alas, that experiment failed miserably—although, he told me, it was her fault. As he explained, “All Russian women are captious.”

Cockburn was, of course, projecting. A close examination of his writings will reveal his deep-seated anti-feminism and a penchant for racial and class stereotyping. Elena Kagan must be gay, he said, due to the “heavyish set to (her) jaw and features.”

He had a pathetic naiveté in practical matters. He once asked me how my wife and I had managed to stay together for 30 years. I said one had to have the capacity to love another more than one self. He didn’t understand. His insufferable snobbery, peppered with an addiction to American consumerism, would not admit the possibility of a love greater than the love for himself.

Often cited as a gatekeeper, due to his association with CIA apologists, Cockburn in recent years started sinking to the same depths of depravity as other prominent members of the so-called American Left—his Establishment editor at The Nation, along with Amy Goodman at Hypocrisy Now! and David Corn at Mother Jones, to name three of the worst offenders.

He had a soft spot for CIAmour Hersh, and he and St Clair, who morphed into a mini-Cockburn, refused to allow me to publish an article in CP slamming him. During Israel’s “Cast Iron” massacre of Palestinians, they rejected an article I proposed to write about the erosion of the American Left due to the support of so many Jewish intellectuals for Israel. St Clair said the subject was “too sensitive.”

With that betrayal, I stopped writing for CounterPunch.

Cockburn’s inherent reactionary streak emerged in full flower soon thereafter, when he took American citizenship and embraced his inner Libertarian. As he became more and more Americanized, he fell in love with his shotgun (to defend his property, not for armed rebellion), equated abortion with evil, and denied both the existence of global warming and the over-arching Establishment conspiracy of which he was a mainstay.

It makes no difference that he is dead. But it is time to acknowledge two things: 1) that the Left is inherently radical; and 2) that there is no true Left in America, due to its corrupt leadership.

Alexander Cockburn, for all the good he did, was the personification of all that is hypocritical about the leaders of America’s imaginary Left: light on intellectual honesty, heavy on power games, censorship, and carefully crafted public personas—the package of neuroses that Byron articulated and slammed in language Cockburn could never quite copy, though he tried.




Douglas Valentine is the author of “The Phoenix Program” and his latest book is “The Strength of the Pack: The Personalities, Politics and Espionage Intrigues That Shaped The DEA.” Please visit his website at

7 Responses to Alexander Cockburn and the fantasy of the radical Left

  1. Larry Pinkney

    July 27, 2012
    Thank you for your courage and clarity in this article, not only as it pertains to Alexander Cockburn, but perhaps more importantly, as it relates to the hypocrisy and contradictions of the so-called Left in general in the United States. We’ve SO MUCH WORK to do.

    In struggle,
    Larry Pinkney
    Associate Editor
    Editorial Board Member & Columnist

  2. Randall Tillotson

    I’ve always believed that the Left in the U.S. had been co-opted for decades, probably right after WWII. During the war, unions were promised that they would get compensated for their efforts, but they were told that they had to wait until after the war. When the war ended, the state betrayed them and went on full attack mode, complete with the witch hunts of Senator McCarthy and his Grand Inquisition. The unions buckled and were clearly infiltrated by C.I.A. and F.B.I. operatives. While I can’t prove this, their actions over the post-war decades were circumstantial evidence in spades.

    When Chileans elected Leftist parties and Allende took the leadership of the Left coalition, George Meany of the A. F. of L. was dispatched to Santiago to organize a cab drivers strike, in a effort to bring down this government, which was no more communist than Canada’s or Sweden’s form of social democracy. None of the membership unions in the A.F. of L. said a peep. What can be concluded? They supported Meany’s pernicious actions, which can only mean to me that these “too big to fail” unions had been by then, totally controlled by Big Brother. Some time ago, I read a membership list of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the then head of the A. F. of L. was a member. So there it was, right out in the open, you couldn’t tell the pigs from the farmers or the farmers from the pigs.

    When Cockburn came to the defense of Stalin by downplaying the number of persons murdered in his reign of terror, I came to only one conclusion: he was a plant to make the Left look evil by supporting a psychopathic mass murderer. This being just one case of the Left, self-appointed leadership being totally corrupted for nefarious purposes diametrically opposed to the audience they were claiming to represent. When Cockburn and Chomsky attacked anyone that challenged the official government myth that 19 Arabs hijacked airplanes and drove them into the WTC, this was the final straw.

    The U.S. is in the predicament it’s in today because of the massive betrayal by these fake Leftist leaders, who were and are now posing as “champions of the people.” We’ve been under a spell for decades from these people, but thanks to articles like this one and others, there is a hidden message within that says, “When I count three and snap my fingers, you will awaken and see reality for what it really is…one…getting more awake…two…girding up your loins, get ready…three…SNAP!”

  3. thomas c mountain

    It is quite obvious that Doug Valentine (who keeps sending me unsolicited emails) never knew Alex Cockburn. I produced three programs with Alex in my home town of Honolulu, Hawaii, in 1995, 1999 and in 2006 shortly before we relocated to Eritrea.
    I had a chance to get to spend some quality time with Alex and he was a really nice guy, polite, considerate, generous and professional in conduct and I never regretted a moment spent with him, no matter the political differences we may have had.
    I have far too many other differences with Mr. Valentine’s article, but I will leave him for good with my admiration for Alex’s political brilliance.
    Aloha, Alexander Cockburn and good riddance to Doug Valentine.
    Thomas C. Mountain
    Asmara, Eritrea

  4. Cockburn and Counterpunch also sped away from any more commentary about 9/11 and damned all still interested in getting to the root of the greatest crime committed to our people on American soil as “conspiracy theorists.” The original insight that you and he had that the Mossad participated has been proven to be right on the money. But perhaps it was the money that prohibited him from proceeding with that level of insight, courage to speak, and fierce pursuit of 9/11 Truth. Pity that a man of his ability sucumbed to blinding himself to 9/11 Truth so completely and quickly for less illuminating writing but more financial gain. Fortunately, you Mr. Valentine, seem to have remained true to your intelligence and perceptions, including by writing this piece. Kudos to you.
    Jerry Mazza.

  5. brother bede vincent

    There are two fundamental issues here: 1) does “Left” mean anything in the US (or North America for that matter– whereby I would go so far as to include the entire English-speaking peoples) and if so what? 2) what do people who assume the mantle of what I would call the “entrepreneurial Left” actually contribute to what I would call the radical humanist project initiated by the French Revolution? In both cases Mr Valentine attempts to show the enormous problems with which those who still believe in the principles of the French Revolution (to remind those who have forgotten: liberty, equality, brotherhood) are faced in the English-speaking empire and the entrepreneurial Left. He does this succinctly and of course anecdotally since a thorough exposition would take more time and space than the courtesy of an obituary permits.

    Mr Valentine and I both knew Mr Cockburn personally, both in his charming and less charming aspects. We both witnessed his capacity to charm and to insult. On the former point I am reminded of a remark a distant relative of the Cockburns (E. Waugh) attributes to one of his characters in “Brideshead Revisited”: paraphrased the gist is “charm, the English are thoroughly charming. Charm can kill anything, even love.” The English-speaking peoples (as Churchill so vainly called the white progeny of the British Empire) are masters of charm and sarcasm– both fundamentally opposite to sincerity. The point of Mr Valentine’s observations is not that Mr Cockburn did not hold leftish views or even argue them– sometimes with considerable vitriol– but that he was insincere.
    Insincerity is a paramount virtue for the preservation of empire– and it was Mr Cockburn’s insincerity which led both to his entrepreneurial success and fostered his vindictiveness. Of course one could argue that Mr Valentine did not know Mr Cockburn but then it lies in the nature of insincerity to deceive– and hence perhaps none of us knew him really.

  6. Yeah, Doug, your appraisal agrees with mine. Of the man more than the Movement.

    I don’t agree in your characterization of the Left, capitalized, or American Left, or Whatever. I don’t agree because I don’t see it. An American Left never was. Partly because, as you say, any mass consensus in the process of condensing and refining concision was infiltrated with totalitarian seeds. Whatever ‘Left’ would be brought down, first the Goons raised up its (purported) existence and esteemed ‘Leader’ who would linger and (save Fidel I think of, almost invariably) like the privileged esteem … and then succumb quietly or be thrown under the limo.

    ‘Left’ and ‘Liberals’ (and ‘Gay’ in this case) amount to imagined ‘stalking horses’ being denounced for ‘their’ Agenda which I’ve never seen. The ‘American Right’ fell into a fog 90 years ago, considering affairs then such as covering-up Harding’s graft group, (in B. Franklin manner — “3 men can keep a secret, if 2 of them are dead” … Silent Cal, anyone?); bail bonding Hitler out of jail, (Harriman Bros); the ascent of J.E. Hoover and the cant of Fascism Bureaucrats In-the-house; plus the next dozen double-crossings of democracy then which you can think of — leads to my point that the contemporary hi-tech magic around the examples was 1923′s radio broadcasting advent, the amazing wireless emission of human voices, in-home, saying what was done and what was thought. At headquarters.

    American Left, Liberal Agenda, (Gay Agenda), are only code epithets promoted by rightwing radio voices, same as ever, royalist tory totalitarians broadcasting delusion from their fog bank.

    I find a concise Leftism in the World Socialism WebSite (, although lacking the “radical’ character that you expect and without an instituted massmedia participation that I expect.

    Radio broadcasting was originally financed with public funds, (also ‘license fees’ for receivers a k a ‘sales tax’ for radio purchases), before the commercialists bought sponsorship and Supreme Court ‘go for it’. As much as internet omniscient magic is reprise of 1924 radiowaves magic — while, in fact, the internet arrived from and lives by 1890 telephony, and it from 1830 telegraphy — today’s internet-made leftism must foremost avoid radio/TV’s 1934 downfall tripped by commercial dealings, and rather exist mainly by public funding.

    The Left lives in literacy. Failing literal facts is what cuts the Right out of society’s human evolution.

  7. I’m curious as to how he ended up on the Lost Coast – I often wondered whether his “radical as reality” was more a matter of on the page than “real life? ” Did he fact have inherited wealth, or was it mostly class connections?