Feuding radical journalists (written on the Marxism list last year)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sat Nov 13 13:29:16 MST 1999

Yesterday Alexander Cockburn attacked Christopher Hitchens as a snitch and
a drunk in his NY Press column. Hitchens was in the news because of his
testimony in the Senate trial of Bill Clinton. He stated that long-time
friend Sidney Blumenthal had told him that Monica Lewinsky was a stalker,
after Blumenthal had denied this under oath. This means that Blumenthal can
spend time in prison for perjury.

Cockburn tries to paint Hitchens as a latter-day version of Whittaker
Chambers for snitching on a friend in the way that Chambers ratted out
Alger Hiss, but the comparison seems a bit far-fetched. I agree basically
with Frank Rich's assessment on the op-ed page of today's NY Times:

"Let me get this straight: Mr. Hitchens, a Clinton critic, signs an
affidavit saying that his friend of 15 years, Mr. Blumenthal, a Clinton
sycophant, aided Bill Clinton's effort to defame Monica Lewinsky. Yet Mr.
Hitchens also declares that he'd 'rather be held in contempt' than actually
testify against Mr. Blumenthal should the Senate put the Clinton aide on
trial. The writer Christopher Buckley describes this dust-up as 'a
Chambers-versus-Hiss moment. . . . the kind of event in which one
inevitably must take sides.'

"Must we? If Mr. Hitchens won't testify, there's no case. Even if he were
to testify, the case is still legally weak -- given Mr. Blumenthal's
lawyerly testimony -- and is at most a sideshow to the impeachment
articles. Where are the huge principles to rally around? The fate of
anti-Communism isn't at stake -- nor even the fate of the Clinton
Presidency. What is on the line are the guest lists of certain Washington
dinner parties, a lot of lawyers' fees and Mr. Hitchens's continued ability
to command a spotlight on All Monica talk shows. This catfight isn't
Chambers-vs.-Hiss but Beaver-vs.-Eddie Haskell, less suitable for CNN than
for Nick at Nite."

Cockburn, Hitchens and Blumenthal all started out the same way, as radical
journalists in the 1960s. All three had loose ties to the organized radical
movement. Cockburn worked with the Trotskyists at NLR, including Tariq Ali,
Mike Davis and Robin Blackburn. Hitchens was a member of Tony Cliff's
Socialist Workers Party, a British state-capitalist sect, while Blumenthal
wrote for the New Leftist Boston Phoenix.

Cockburn and Hitchens have capitalized on their leftist connections and
have become quite successful as "house radicals" at the Nation. Blumenthal
shifted to the right in the 1980s, because he was never as anchored to the
organized left as the two others. He went to work for Martin Peretz at the
New Republic and dropped all his earlier radical pretensions. This made him
a candidate for the White House staff of neoliberal Bill Clinton. The most
interesting thing about the Hitchens-Cockburn spat is how much energy it
has generated. Cockburn is totally consumed with hatred for Hitchens, while
Hitchens spends much of his time trying to promote a career as a talking
head on Sunday morning television shows, in a manner similar to Nation
Magazine heavy hitter Eric Alterman..

It is difficult to regard Cockburn as a leftist stalwart nowadays in light
of his own dubious trips down blind alleys over the past ten years. His
championing of right-wing populism and Indian gambling casinos can only
trouble erstwhile supporters like myself. He has also cultivated an image
of backwoods misanthropic crank that summons up poet Robinson Jeffers and
other notable American nut cases.

What is the explanation for this sort of odd and repellent behavior? I
think the answer lies in the Clinton administration's hegemony. During the
1980s, the Reagan-Bush team rallied left liberals and radicals against a
clearly defined enemy. After Clinton took office, the institutional ties
between left liberals and radicals continued--mostly through writing
assignments, jobs at foundations, etc.--but the political terrain shifted.
The big name radicals were slowly losing touch with their radical base, so
they tended to write more and more about their private obsessions rather
than public concerns. In the old days, Cockburn would write 1 column about
his vacation trips or restaurant meals or personal feuds to 10 columns
about the mass movement. Now the ratio seems 50/50.

This a tough time for independent radical journalists. Without a vibrant
mass movement, they tend to become disoriented. Their careers loom more
importantly as approaching middle or old age reminds them about the need to
feather their own nest. Quarrels with the IRS, the numbers of pages a
column occupies, connections to powerful funding or job sources, etc. take
over one's thinking.

The other problem is that ideological confusion crops up more frequently.
When volunteers returned from picking coffee beans in Nicaragua and spoke
to audiences about how inspiring a revolution could be, this energy seeped
its way into left-liberal institutions like the Nation and the Institute
for Policy Studies. Without that energy, our radical journalists go off on
tangents as they try to explain to themselves what's wrong with socialism,
rather than what's wrong with the capitalist system.

The only solution is a radical shift in the objective conditions. Radical
journalists don't tend to be too strongly grounded in Marxism, so they need
constant empirical reminders of how rotten the system is. Some of these
radicals might even defect to the establishment if empirical reminders
don't come in the nick of time. We are living in a disorienting period, but
there are signs of change on the horizon. The election of social democrats
in Europe is the first real sign of a shift away from the capitalist
consensus. More changes will come, because the capitalist system itself is
forced to produce them. That part of the Communist Manifesto is as true as

Louis Proyect
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