Last night, I followed an interesting conversation between Corey Robin and Michael Cohen on Twitter. Two people I respect a lot though they differ ideologically in places. The subject: whether Alexander Cockburn should be remembered fondly because he was seen as an apologist for Stalin early in his career as well as his late in life questioning of climate change (which is depressing but whatever, he was an old cranky dying dude). To be brief, Cohen thought the Stalin defense was a greater problem than Robin. Robin posits the debate within a larger problem he sees in modern American liberalism:
Why is he or she willing to make his or her peace with the American state—despite all its crimes (crimes acknowledged by liberals!)—yet never willing to make his or her peace with critics like Cockburn, whose only “crime,” if you can call it that, was to apologize for the Soviet Union long past its sell by date? Why so much room at the inn for Truman, JFK, or LBJ—all men with real blood on their hands—while people like Cockburn and Chomsky are denied entry?
I think Robin is fundamentally right here. The Serious Liberal (TM) in late 20th-early 21st century America must condemn those to left, whether old-school trade unionists, those who reject global capitalism, or those who take a hard left stance against American imperialism. Only then can the Serious Liberal be taken seriously by People Who Matter (TM). This all reminded me of so many discussions I’ve had over the past 15 years about Fidel Castro. Despite the horrors of Latin American history, it’s always Very Very Important for liberals to talk about how bad Castro is whenever Latin American issues come up. And sure, in some ways he’s a bad dude. But these conversations are always much more about distancing oneself from a leftist with old-timey ideology and being someone who is serious than placing Castro’s legacy within the checkered past of Latin American governance or the almost universally evil history of American involvement in the region. Where are those conversations between left intellectuals?
But I have a slightly different position on these questions overall. Applied to this specific debate, here it is.
Who gives a shit if Alexander Cockburn may not have condemned Stalinism consistently throughout his career?
I certainly do not.
I come to this conclusion for a number of reasons.
First, my top concern in this world is improving the everyday life of as many people as possible. Economic justice, social justice, sexual justice, etc. Does Alexander Cockburn’s position on Stalin matter for any of this? No. If Stalinism was somewhere even close to a legitimate option of governance in the West during Cockburn’s lifetime, I might say that he should have taken a stronger stance. But it wasn’t and so I don’t see how his position on the issue matters to the larger question of equality, even during his height of fame.
Second, this is a classic argument that destroys the left. While we can spend energy arguing whether an important but ultimately relatively powerless journalist condemned a monster harshly enough, conservatives continue to push their agenda against working people. They don’t have these debates. Dick Cheney not only supported apartheid, but was an influential congressman and then cabinet member with the kind of power Cockburn could only dream of. Whatever happened to that guy?
Third, is this 1972? Do young people today really care one way or another about these issues? Does taking the right position regarding people who have been dead for 60 years who ruled a government of a type discredited and never to return have any importance to, say, the people on the streets during Occupy Wall Street last fall? Does this address their lives in any important way? Does this address the lives of Americans struggling with debt, racism, or homophobia? Not that I can see. This debate is straight out of the post-60s left, more concerned with ideology and theoretical arguments than touching base with everyday people. I just don’t have time for it (despite the fact that I’m writing this post about how I don’t have time for it).
Now you may say that there are serious moral questions here. How could someone like Cockburn say anything good about Stalin? I don’t know–the times, the strains of marijuana he was smoking during the 70s, being contrary, needing a tool to beat the American imperialist monster with, etc. And given that Cockburn was a leftist in the comfortable West critiquing its excesses, racism, and imperialism, using Stalin as a tool to beat the capitalists probably had value to him. As I’ve said before, the left needs some kind of anti-capitalist alternative model in order to provide some kind of alternative, undesirable in actual fact as it may be. I’m not apologizing for Cockburn. I just don’t really care. The guy was there for a lot of good battles. As a whole, his life was dedicated to making other people’s life better. If he wasn’t ideologically perfect throughout his life, well, who among us can say that we have not made mistakes? And if we haven’t, have we made any difference at all?
Note that I have no real dog in this hunt. I rarely read Cockburn and he was not influential in my thinking. But do get sick of frequent debates about whether American leftists condemn bad guys in other countries with enough vigor.