Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 9, 2012

Alexander Cockburn throws a spitball at Occupy–and misses

Filed under: Alexander Cockburn,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Ever the contrarian, Alexander Cockburn threw a spitball at the Occupy movement on Counterpunch last Saturday that made me wonder if he ever had any enthusiasm for it despite the friendly articles that appeared there from the beginning.

The one thing that struck me as egregiously wrong was this:

Where was the knowledge of, let along the respect for the past? We had the non-violent resistors of the Forties organising against the war with enormous courage. The Fifties saw leftists took McCarthyism full on the chin. With the Sixties we were making efforts at revolutionary organisation and resistance.
 Yet when one raised this history with someone from Occupy, I encountered total indifference.

Maybe I am missing something but I got reports on almost a daily basis about some “old leftist” or another getting an enthusiastic response when they spoke to the occupiers, from Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz to the ISO’s Anthony Arnove. And speaking of the sixties, the New Left was infamous for its lack of “respect for the past”. And, finally, I am a bit puzzled by Alexander’s reference to us “making efforts at revolutionary organization and resistance”. I am almost tempted to repeat Tonto’s reminder to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean by ‘us’, white man?” Alexander, unlike Christopher Hitchens, is and was a political virgin. He does not know what it means to roll up his sleeves and actually go out and organize people. I think he is a very fine journalist, one of the best on the left on his better days, but he really doesn’t know anything about building organizations.

Most of Alexander’s hostility to the Occupy movement is based on an article by Thomas Naylor that appeared on Counterpunch on March 27th, 2012. Titled “Occupy Wall Street Revisited, Who is Occupying Whom?“, it poses the interesting question (without a question mark unfortunately): “Is it possible that the real purpose of Occupy Wall Street has little to do with either the 99 percent or the 1 percent but rather everything to do with keeping the political left in America decentralized, widely dispersed, very busy, and completely impotent to deal with the collapse of the American Empire”. Well, at least Naylor does not blame the CIA or other nefarious state agencies for this turn of events, as the ineffable Michel Chossudovsky did.

Naylor also objects to the appearance of the protestors, reminding me of Al Capp and George Jessel’s fulminations against hippie protestors on the Tonight Show during the Vietnam War:

Although Bill O’Reilly’s mean-spirited portrayal of OWS is grossly unfair, some of the TV images of OWS protestors do not instill confidence in their ability to change the world. Many of them come across as stereotypical radical, disgruntled, hippie malcontents. The problem lies when they become the defining image of a fledgling political movement.

It is hard for me to conjure up an image of a stereotypical radical/hippie malcontent. What does this mean? Wearing a black beret and a tie-dyed t-shirt? Somehow it doesn’t compute. At any rate, here’s a reminder of what a typical protestor looked like, from my visit down to Occupy Wall Street:

click image to play video

Alexander had another beef with the Occupy movement: “Where the hell’s the plan?” I wonder if his endorsement of Naylor’s critique includes an endorsement of the plan that he has long been associated with, namely Vermont seceding from the United States. Naylor is founder of the Second Vermont Republic, a group described on its website as follows:

The Second Vermont Republic is a nonviolent citizens’ network and think tank committed to: (1) the peaceful breakup of meganations such as the United States, Russia, and China; (2) the political independence of breakaway states such as Quebec, Scotland, and Vermont; and (3) a strategic alliance with other small, democratic, nonviolent, affluent, socially responsible, cooperative, egalitarian, sustainable, ecofriendly nations such as Austria, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland which share a high degree of environmental integrity and a strong sense of community.

All I can say is that the young people who occupied Wall Street were vindicated by provoking the wrath of this 76 year old Professor Emeritus from Duke University, for this “plan” is about as batty as they come. I got a big kick out of the description of Austria as being “democratic” and “nonviolent”. Does Naylor read a newspaper?

The Guardian, Saturday 18 October 2008

Kate Connolly

‘Haider is our Lady Di’

As the leaders of Europe’s far-right parties gather for today’s state funeral of Austria’s most controversial politician, is European fascism once again on the rise?

“Official Austrian state doctrine after the war was that the Allies liberated Austria from Nazi Germany in 1945 and that Austria had been a victim of the Nazis in 1938,” says Pelinka. “This overlooks the fact that the percentage of Austrians who participated in the Nazi regime was the same as in Germany. In contrast, Germany was forced to confront its past directly and did so. Austria was not and didn’t.”

In Germany, Haider – famous for his outbursts lauding SS veterans, his description of Austria as an “ideological miscarriage”, his labelling of Nazi death camps as “punishment camps” and admiration for the Third Reich’s “sensible employment policies” – could never have achieved the same success.

Haider himself was frustrated in his attempts to form a pan-European far-right club, though he was successful at least in his intention of provoking European leaders after they slapped sanctions on Austria following the electoral success of his Freedom party (FPO) in 2000.

Nonetheless he is credited with having injected new life into far-right politics. “He was one of the first in Europe to grasp that it’s not about issues or a rational discourse, but about emotion,” says Brem. “He understood that politics was about marketing and you need to be marketing savvy to succeed.”

“What Haider did was to bring Austria’s SS and Nazi history out of the past and put it in the present and because he was such a charismatic politician he got away with it,” says Rauscher. “But his lasting legacy is the way that he poisoned the political atmosphere in Austria in the process.”

Now I am not trying to connect Thomas Naylor with someone like Haider but there are worrisome signs that the Vermont secessionists have been a bit undiscriminating in their relations with Americans who are. In trying to build a nationwide network, Naylor approached an outfit called The League of the South that describes itself as “distinct from, and in opposition to, the corrupt mainstream American culture.” They “stand for our own sublime cultural inheritance and seek to separate ourselves from the cultural rot that is American culture.” This is a bumper sticker they sell from their website:

Under pressure from the Vermont left, Naylor broke with the racists. The Green Mountain Daily, a liberal Vermont website, questioned Naylor’s motivations:

The famous Thomas “Don’t Call Me a Racist” Naylor has published a letter called (I’m not making this up)

To The League of the South From Vermont With Love

Yes, you read that right: “With Love”. That’s only the first reason to question the sincerity of this “break”, however. If you read the letter, you will see that, far from acknowledging the racism of the League of the South, Naylor treats it as no more than a PR problem.

Naylor thinks racism is no more than a problem of perception. Naylor covers some history, and then begins with the racist aroma surrounding secession movements: “Secession is often equated with Southern, redneck, Christian fundamentalist racism. Anyone who is a secessionist is considered a likely racist, but a Southern secessionist is a racist a priori. Since the LOS is a Southern secessionist group, it’s hardly surprising that there is a widespread perception that it is racist”. Get it? There’s nothing racist about LOS, but for some bizarre reason, people think that southern secessionists have some racist ideas. According to Naylor, this idea is no more than a “knee-jerk reaction” on the part of most Americans. It’s not that there actually is any racism involved in secessionists, it’s just “equated with” southern racism. The problem isn’t the racist ideas, it’s that people can’t stop thinking about them. There’s nothing wrong with it except those unfortunate associations with “images of the Civil War, slavery, racism, violence, and preservation of the Southern way of life.”

This unfortunate perception even infects the cultural symbols of the South. For instance, here’s Naylor on the Confederate flag: Whether justifiably or not, most Southern blacks view the Confederate flag as an overt racist symbol aimed at rubbing salt in their 400-year wounds.

Returning again to Alexander, I do have to wonder who he is referring to when he writes: “Leninists threw aside their Marxist primers on party organisation and drained the full anarchist cocktail.” This snappy bit of prose is classic Cockburn, incorporating everything except what journalism schools harp on: who, what, where, when and why.

Is a Leninist somebody who has nice things to say about Lenin, like the irrepressible Slavoj Zizek? I kind of doubt it. Lacan, not Lenin, seems more to the point. To me, Leninist means somebody who is actively involved in building a “Leninist” party like the ISO, the SWP, and the rest of the alphabet soup. Somehow, I don’t think that they ever “drained the full anarchist cocktail”. Mostly, they had some nice things to say about the movement but were never organically part of it. As is too often the case, they came to the movement with their own agenda and sought ways to exploit it. The one thing that the movement was resistant to was this kind of cadre intervention.

This leads me to my final point. Wherever this movement goes next, it pointed to the possibility of building massive anti-capitalist protests without the dubious support from the Leninist left. It is entirely possible that Alexander was referring not to Leninists, but ex-Leninists like Pham Binh who worked tirelessly on behalf of the movement and spoke about its possibilities for the future.

As American capitalism continues to hand out the shitty end of the stick to working people and the poor, there will be an impetus for a grass roots movement that challenges the ruling class. It will be incumbent on the “old left” to find a way to relate to such a development in a positive way and to learn from it. The Occupy movement has made mistakes, black bloc-ism the worst of it in my opinion, but it has also had a capacity to adjust and to move forward.

I suspect that in its next upward surge, whether in the name of Occupy or some other permutation, it will inspire millions, including the founder of Counterpunch who is not too old—one hopes—to be inspired by a genuine insurrectionary movement.


  1. Naylor’s a tad naive about Switzerland, too:


    Taibbi is well ahead of Cockburn’s curve. What the pop reporter from “Rolling Stone” found was probably a bit more accurate: “They [the Occupiers] don’t give a fuck about what I or the rest of the media think.”

    Comment by kjs — July 9, 2012 @ 6:32 pm

  2. KJS (or rather Taibbi) is right. Moreover, they don’t give a fuck about who Eugene V. Debs is, or even Joe Hill for that matter. So what Mr. Cockburn? That’s fine by me, so long as they can organize & sustain a movement that gets real results, that is, significant structural change. After that then Debs & Hill will get their due recognition in the new education system that inexorably follows.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 9, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

  3. Isn’t the early 20th century European experience an argument against regionalism and a bevy of small nation state units jostling for imperial advantage? Besides which it’s a complete anachronism in today’s world.

    Comment by purple — July 10, 2012 @ 12:29 am

  4. One thing that’s clearly not an anachronism is still the century old idea of Lenin’s that finance capital (6 billion peoples’ fate determined by Goldman-Sachs & the Pentagon) is an epoch defined by predatory antagonistic social relations wedded to unsustainable militarism that drags the world’s workers into either ruin or the fight for socialism.

    The rub is that Jack London’s “Iron Heel” never anticipated climate change disasters & the societal carcinogens unleashed by the abject perfidy of the likes of Monsanto, Dow, Union Carbide, Johnson & Johnson, etc, etc, etc.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — July 10, 2012 @ 1:19 am

  5. I have worked almost on a daily basis with “Leninists” within Occupy Wall Street, from groups such as ISO, Solidarity and SA. They have worked from the very beginning to build the Occupy movement while trying to deal with the political diversity ranging from the insanity of the Black Bloc to the opportunism of people who want to merge with Moveon. I have followed Pham Binh’s writings on Occupy from the beginning. It is my opinion that, fundamentally, he has no real idea what is going on on the inside of the movement, especially in New York, and even less about the historic role of the “Leninist” left.

    Comment by RED DAVE — July 10, 2012 @ 2:44 am

  6. As I am at present going through one of those periods of unemployment that are probably as close as I will ever come to retirement, I have been rereading Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. Among many other things, this work contains the following gem (beginning of Chapter 3):

    “Marxism sets out from the development of technique as the fundamental spring of progress, and constructs the communist program upon the dynamic of the productive forces. If you conceive that some cosmic catastrophe is going to destroy our planet in the fairly near future, then you must, of course, reject the communist perspective along with much else. Except for this as yet problematic danger, however, there is not the slightest scientific ground for setting any limit in advance to our technical productive and cultural possibilities. Marxism is saturated with the optimism of progress, and that alone, by the way, makes it irreconcilably opposed to religion”.

    How many Occupy participants–or indeed, leftists of any stripe–are now “saturated with the optimism of progress” or truly believe that the ecological crises now under way–especially global warming–don’t constitute “a cosmic catastrophe” that “is going to destroy our planet in the fairly near future”?

    Disbelief in material progress through industrialism allied with science and the view that nature–formerly viewed as inexhaustibly bounteous and impossible to subdue–is in fact an intensely fragile structure, imperiled by the very existence of the human race as it has developed through history, are now very widespread.

    Perhaps the reason why “the young” no longer have any interest in history (if that is really the case) is that they no longer believe in progress–and hence, see only disaster as the result of historical development. If that is really the belief that prevails, then perhaps that belief itself, not some generalized “anachronism” of old-fashioned radicalism, is the reason why many of today’s young radicals no longer care who Jack London or Joe Hill–or Lenin himself, let alone Trotsky–really was.

    What, one wonders, are the implications for the Left if this is true? Should we re-saturate? Will we ever be able to recite statistics on milk and steel production with the intensity Trotsky brings to these unfashionable subjects?

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — July 10, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

  7. I did pick up a copy of “The Occupied Wall Street Journal” at Union Square a few months back—right before their May Day march was announced—and the young writers of the very well-produced publication did include introductory histories of labor uprisings in the U.S.

    Comment by kjs — July 10, 2012 @ 8:57 pm

  8. “. . . the young writers of the very well-produced publication did include introductory histories of labor uprisings in the U.S.”

    Ah, but were they the real Occupy or mere pretenders such as Red Dave alleges Pham Binh to be?

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — July 10, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

  9. One thing to keep in mind is that since 1991 a lot of the old stuff just seems like the French Revolution. I mean, when I heard about the French Revolution I had some generic curiousity. But it never occurred to me think of the mess going on today as somehow a continuation of battles from that time. In the 20th century many Leftists saw their activities as fitting into an era of common battles which had begun in 1917 and was still raging. For obvious reasons, people today don’t have the same view of the past. Taking that account, I think that Cockburn is stretching it here when he makes it sound as if there is zero interest.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — July 11, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

  10. Maybe whoever Cockburn was talking to was indifferent because he or she was familiar with his take on global warming.

    Joe: I may be pretender, but the pamphlet I wrote is pretty popular among OWS people as well as to the people interested in it: http://planetanarchy.net/Common.pdf

    Dave’s comment is amusing because hardly anyone on the broad left and in Occupy cares “Leninists” are doing because the existing groups have prioritized their own self-perpetuation over spreading their influence throughout Occupy and its offshoots. While the “Leninists” are holding study groups about the CP-organized rent strikes of the 1930s, Occupy Sunset Park in conjunction with neighborhood and community groups have actually put one together: http://occupywallst.org/article/ocupy-sunset-park-rally-rent-strikers-thursday/ The groups spend a lot of time on their newspapers but how many of them are writing or editing for Occupied Wall Street Journal, Tidal, or Metroccupied?

    But hey, don’t listen to me. I’m a total ignoramus and a phony. I was standing in front of a green screen when Lou turned his camera on the day before the Brooklyn Bridge arrests: http://vimeo.com/29929337


    Comment by Binh — July 11, 2012 @ 5:29 pm

  11. The facile ridiculousness of Cockburn’s article surprised me. The fact that he fixates on the dread “drum circles” shows he doesn’t know Occupy from his asshole, because only an idiot who formulates his opinion of Occupy from watching CNN would buy into the ridiculousness of the whole hippies with bongos business. I’m a little surprised that Cockburn doesn’t end his piece shouting at Occupiers to “get a job!”

    And anyone who thinks there are not Leninists, or perhaps post-Leninists, in Occupy subsets like Occupy Sunset Park or the Occupied Wall Street Journal, hasn’t been paying close enough attention.

    Comment by ish — July 11, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

  12. Binh: I don’t think you’re a pretender. On the contrary. I was characterizing Red Dave’s opinion and being ironic.

    It’s a fact that, since the end of the public Occupations, Occupy has become somewhat occult–who are they? and where are they really?–and this has bred a certain number of World’s Authorities offering an inside track about the “real Occupy.”

    It’s only natural for concerned individuals to try to clarify things, especially if intellectually equipped to do so, however polemically.

    But everywhere I’ve ever worked or played, there’s some presumptuous fuck who likes to tell people that where they are isn’t “the real world,” and they’ll change whatever tune they’re singing when it finally catches up with them.

    Personally, I like to think that I will have the satisfaction of shooting at least one of the latter assholes before I die.

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — July 12, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

  13. Joe, sorry for missing the irony. Sometimes the internet is a shitty place for that.

    Occupy has become isolated and inward in some places; other elements have begun to develop community roots. I think it will persist in some form for at least the next decade.

    Comment by Binh — July 12, 2012 @ 5:51 pm

  14. A. Cockburn’s frankly ignorant take on Occupy is just the latest confirmation of their fundamental pessimism and resulting cynicism towards the prospects of mass struggle, thinly masked by an erstwhile “old white man’s” populism that certainly finds some strange bedfellows ranging from solidarity with the pseudo “anitimperialist” left to the execrable and utterly boring “catastrophist” Paul Craig Roberts on the right, not to mention global warming denialism. How’s that working out this summer, Alex? Oh that’s right, you live in relatively cool Mendocino County, and can afford ignorance in this case.

    Counterpunch’s sneering take on the Arab Spring – shared by the usual suspects known and loved around here – is also shared in the case of the Occupy phenomenon. Taken together they are two key data points that confirm the reactionary trajectory. But, hey, at least they are not “left opportunists”; they are worse: right opportunists! You know, those that like to rub shoulders with right wingers like Assad, Milosevic, Gaddafi and so forth. That’s infinitely preferable to the risk of left opportunism – a real risk btw – that comes with taking a positive, sincerely optimistic approach to events like the Arab Spring, Occupy, Syriza, etc., but without illusions about the political content of the actual organizations directly involved in these struggles.

    I’ve pretty much had my fill of Counterpunch. We’ll see who will be doing the sneering and jeering in the end, says a line of this fighting song from Cockburn’s own homeland (“Come Out Ye Black and Tans”):

    “Where are your sneers and jeers that you loudly let us hear”
    “When our leaders of ’16 were executed”

    Comment by Matt — July 12, 2012 @ 6:12 pm

  15. Great cameo:

    Comment by Binh — July 13, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

  16. Binh, not sure who is meant by the cameo, but I used to be in CISPES with Ted Auerback in the early 80s. Good to see him still going strong.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 13, 2012 @ 9:50 pm

  17. He was talking about me, I’m in that. And yes, Ted is a great guy.

    Comment by ish — July 13, 2012 @ 9:54 pm

  18. Despite misgivings, US Eternal Flamers (no longer “boomer” babies) have been in faithful attendance of the OWSt. effort; but the truth remains of no substantial motivation of (even) the 30 MILLIONS of un/deremployed and 2 MILLION wage-frozen federal public servants to overwhelm the lipsticking Obamanable Bush-Hogs of Our OPPRE$$ION. Surely, OWSt.ers can see that they Must Be MOBED!

    Comment by Bruce — July 16, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

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