Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 22, 2007

Whither The Nation Magazine?

Filed under: cruise missile left,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

Joaquin Villalobos

When The Nation published his attack on Hugo Chavez, did they know that the former FMLN commander turned neoconservative is an adviser to the bloodstained government of Colombia? We can assume that Marc Cooper, who convinced them to publish it, certainly knew.

If I hadn’t noticed Dennis Perrin’s favorable comments posted to Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk mailing list about a World Socialist Website series of articles on The Nation Magazine prompted by Cindy Sheehan’s defection from the Democratic Party, I would have missed them completely: “This is what WSWS does best. Think the Nation might run a condensed version of this?” Since Dennis has a lot of experience writing comedy, you can be assured that the Nation would never even consider publishing even a single word of the WSWS critique at:




I was reminded of how rotten the Nation can be when I noticed an article by Joaquin Villalobos attacking Hugo Chavez in the latest issue. It prompted me to write the following web letter to the magazine:

Aren’t you people aware that Villalobos is a neoconservative? He supported the war in Iraq in 2003 and only opposes it now–tepidly–for the same reasons that George Packer does. In addition, he is a counterinsurgency adviser to the bloodstained government of Colombia. Did Marc Cooper urge you to publish this sordid item? I guess if you are going to publish Cockburn on global warming, you might as well publish this kind of nonsense.

Cooper translated the Villalobos article and convinced the Nation to run it. On his blog entry touting the article, Cooper wrote, “Completing his studies at Oxford, Villalobos is now one of the more sought-after consultants on security and development in Latin America.” Security, indeed. You might as well have hailed OSS veteran Edward Lansdale as a “sought-after consultant on security” in the 1960s. At least Lansdale didn’t use leftist rhetoric to justify his treachery the way that Villalobos does.

Here’s an excerpt from the WSWS series that sizes up Cooper and company quite well:

Cooper, Nichols, vanden Heuvel and the others are dishonest with themselves and their readers because their function as the journalistic representatives of the well-endowed think tanks, universities, media outlets, trade unions and consulting firms prevents them from dealing objectively and forthrightly with social relationships in America; they can’t call things by their proper names.

This better-off section of the middle class is unhappy with the current state of affairs, but long ago lost interest or hope, if it ever had any, in effecting a deep change in American society. These individuals apply pressure on the political process, in the end, to make life more comfortable for themselves and those around them.

In some cases, they have been transformed from radical youths into something quite different; their ‘old selves’ would be shocked by their ‘new selves.’ Whatever residual radicalism and opposition they may feel is trumped many times over by their social connections and obligations, which are much more deeply felt than anything else.

Having said all this, I must confess to being a subscriber to the Nation myself. After dropping my subscription in the 1990s, I wrote an open letter to Victor Navasky that began as follows:

Since this is being circulated on the Internet, where there are many non-USA participants, a word or two about the Nation would be helpful. The Nation was established in 1865 by a group of abolitionists and is the authoritative voice of left-liberalism in the US. During the 1930s and 40s, it was sympathetic to the views of the CPUSA and has often included Marxist contributors and editors. Doug Henwood, for example, is on the editorial board.

Long-time editor Victor Navasky was being interviewed on public television’s Open Mind a month or so ago and was explaining why long-term subscribers were important to the magazine. When you consider that a year’s subscription to the weekly costs $52, somebody who has been subscribing for five years, let’s say, has put up over $250 for the production costs of the magazine, which actually runs a deficit on a regular basis (no tobacco ads, etc.). Since I have been reading the magazine every week since early 1980 either on the newsstand or through subscription as is currently the case, this qualifies me as a long-term subscriber. In addition, I was responsible for first placing weekly ads in the Nation for my organization Tecnica over a 3 year stretch in the 1980s. Each ad cost $50 as I recall. At 50 issues or so a year, this represented $7500 in revenue, if my math is correct.

Around 5 years ago I began looking at the Nation again. The “war on terror” taking place under a rightwing Republican administration had put a bit of sizzle in the magazine. If it had grown flabby under Clinton, it was showing a bit of muscle with the “bad guys” running the government. I was also able to read the magazine for free since Columbia University made it available through Proquest. When the Nation terminated its connection to Proquest, I decided to take out a subscription once again. I generally skip the first 10 pages of the magazine, which is editorial twaddle about the latest misdeeds of the Republicans and go straight to the book review section, which is first-rate. Since I am a big-time crossword puzzle fan, I then attack the Nation’s puzzle which is modeled after the British stumpers that appear in the Times Literary Supplement.

Although I find the WSWS articles quite useful in filling in the historical background, I tend to disagree with their focus on the 1930s as constituting the “original sin” of the magazine. This was a period when the publishers were typical New Deal fans of the Kremlin. As ortho-Trotskyists, this is naturally what WSWS would fixate on.

In my own history of the Nation, I go back much further to the magazine’s origins. It was abolitionist but not radically so. During Reconstruction, it was one of the voices in the North that grew upset with the emancipatory logic of the struggle to eliminate the vestiges of slavery to the point of apologetics for the KKK. As bourgeois liberals, they were afraid that the struggle might spill over into the North and challenge private property. They might have been for freedom, but only as long as it included free enterprise.

These are the opening paragraphs of my article titled “The Nation Magazine’s Tainted Liberalism” that was posted to the Marxism list on March 1, 2003:

This article is an attempt to get to the roots of the yearlong attack on the antiwar movement by figures associated with the Nation Magazine, both within and outside its pages. While this campaign has chiefly been directed at Ramsey Clark and the ANSWER coalition, there is little doubt that what is driving it is animosity toward the radical movement in general.

There has been a tendency, especially at the website of our friends at Counterpunch, to understand this in terms of character flaws. Whether you are dealing with Christopher Hitchen’s alcoholism or Marc Cooper’s creepiness, it is understandable that one might assign a disproportionate weight to such factors. While these are certainly repugnant characters, we are obligated to get at the ideological roots of this 128-year-old liberal institution, which in many ways are far creepier than any individual journalist’s tics or vices.

Largely owing to the well-oiled public relations machinery of the Nation, nearly anybody who has heard of the magazine knows that abolitionists founded it in 1865. Naturally this would lead the average informant, including myself until this investigation began, to assume that the magazine was on the barricades fighting all sorts of injustice.

We get a hint of the real Nation from an article that was included in the 1990 anthology titled “The Nation 1865-1900: Selections from the Independent Magazine of Politics and Culture.” When my eyes first spotted editor and founder E.L. Godkin’s “The Execution of the Anarchists”, I assumed like any normal person that this piece was a 19th century version of “Free Mumia”. In the preface, however, we learn that “Godkin wrote several pieces calling for the hanging of the Chicago anarchists; the magazine, under his editorial control, also opposed trade unions and attacked socialists.” Why this was the case appeared to be of little interest to the anthologist who is content to reflect that certain pages of Godkin’s Nation make for “strange reading.”

In his characteristic take-no-prisoner prose, Godkin states, “The notion that we must tolerate speech the object of which is to induce people to break up the social organization and abolish property by force, is historically and politically absurd.”

Since editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel states that Godkin’s magazine was “claiming for itself the right of citizens in a democracy to carp, protest, condemn, revile, applaud, celebrate, prophesy and otherwise give themselves to the articulate of their circumstances,” one must wonder why she omitted the qualification “except for anarchists.”

Indeed, throughout the Nation Magazine’s first 35 years or so, you would be hard-put to find a challenge to the gathering dark clouds of reaction against black rights, the labor movement, woman’s suffrage or other causes. The magazine spoke out against women having the vote (the speeches of people like Victoria Woodhull were “shrill, incoherent, shallow and irrelevant”) and warned that the eight-hour day would “diminish production.”

I.F. Stone deftly sized up the editorial outlook, which can best be described as laissez faire 19th century liberalism, in an earlier anthology published in 1965 titled “One Hundred Years of the Nation.”

“But to advocate laissez faire consistently and honestly, as The Nation and Godkin did, was to adopt a lonely and ineffectual attitude— hostile to the capitalist trend toward monopoly, hostile to the agrarian cry for regulation of railroads and business, hostile to the workers’ attempts at collective action. In England the advocate of laissez faire marched in the triumphant ranks of the merchants and manufacturers; in America he fought a hopeless rear-guard action in the retreating forces of small business men, rentiers, and the Adams family. The Nation under Godkin attacked the Grangers, the Populists, the trade unions, the single-taxers, and the Socialists, as well as the trusts, the railroad barons, the tariff log-rollers, and the stockjobbing financiers. But the second group was to transform our economy and the first our politics until laissez faire liberalism, once a revolutionary and liberating force, became the slogan of reactionaries.”

Read the entire article here.



  1. Unrelated: http://www.critiquejournal.net/carsiran.pdf

    Comment by Poulod — June 24, 2007 @ 3:00 am

  2. The SEP in my opinion has deviated from the Leninist line put forward in What is To Be Done? on the paper being the collective organizer and revolutionary perspective on the world. A website is a website, and it doesn’t reach out to the masses like a paper does. A paper is something that can be bought at a newstand, or a party supporter in your community, a website, you may never even hear of.

    Comment by LeftyHenry — June 24, 2007 @ 4:48 am

  3. They also ran an Islamophobic cartoon with some awful headline I think around the time of the Danish cartoons.

    Comment by Binh — June 25, 2007 @ 1:33 pm

  4. I linked to this article at my blog.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — June 25, 2007 @ 11:43 pm

  5. The fact that they still carry Cooper, Gitlin, and Hitchens, who have made it a habit of attacking their erstwhile colleagues in McCarthyite harangues is enough to stay away from the magazine.

    It’s sad really. But as Chomsky noted, the role of such magazines is to police the boundaries of acceptable discourse, making sure it doesn’t veer beyond the reach of liberal corporate benefactors who would otherwise be alarmed at any unbridled challenge to their prejudices and interests.

    Comment by ceti — June 26, 2007 @ 2:08 am

  6. I just got the issue and read the Chavez article.

    Despite his stance on global warming (not to mention school shootings and right-wing militias) I still like Cockburn. He has remained anti-capitalist at least. Naomi Klein I like as well.

    I didn’t know much about the history of the magazine, great post. My subsription will be running out soon.

    Comment by Graeme — June 27, 2007 @ 9:58 am

  7. Mr. Proyect, did you know (or is it true) that Villalobos killed poet Roque Dalton?


    Comment by Binh — July 2, 2007 @ 8:44 pm

  8. I did know that Villalobos killed Dalton. I must say, however, that I did not find Villalobos that objectionable in the 1980s. The FMLN was not quite the Shining Path and Villalobos was not a serial murderer. I would describe the murder of Roque Dalton as a tragedy, but the type of event that belonged to the FMLN’s past.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 2, 2007 @ 8:56 pm

  9. Are there any articles that could provide background on the murder? Was Dalton some sort of counter-revolutionary Menshevik or was the murder an accident?

    Comment by Binh — July 3, 2007 @ 1:48 pm

  10. Villalobos showed his true colors as soon as the war was over – he abandoned his long time companera and married a woman from one of the wealthiest families. The assasination was on trumped up charges because Villalobos was threatened by Roque’s leadership. The man is scum.

    Comment by Sara Koopman — July 4, 2007 @ 5:41 pm

  11. Note that is was not the WSWS that ran the “Islamophobic cartoon” – Binh was probably referring to the Nation, but his comment comes directly a comment about the SEP.

    Comment by Tony — March 28, 2008 @ 12:36 am

  12. make that “after a comment about the SEP”

    Comment by Tony — March 28, 2008 @ 12:38 am

  13. I came across to this man as I am writing a book about the so called “peace” processes around the world. Although it is a very old post in your blog, I still wanted to express my disgust at him. Villalobos, you are a traitor to your people and to the international cause of socialism.

    Neither your think-tank memberships nor your academic “success” will change it. History will remember you as such.

    Comment by proleteren — February 5, 2016 @ 8:46 pm

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