Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 17, 2020

Homage to Kevin Coogan

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,obituary — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

I couldn’t locate a photo of Kevin but since he posted on my blog as Hylozoic Hedgehog, this might suffice

Within the past five months, I have lost two of my closest political co-thinkers. On November 9, 2019 Noel Ignatiev died somewhat unexpectedly even though he had been dealing with serious illnesses for a number of years. On March 6th, I learned that Kevin Coogan had died. By a strange coincidence, I only met Noel and Kevin just once in person and each time at lunch, over hamburgers. We spent hours in conversation. With Noel, it was about the 1960s and being Jewish. With Kevin, it was mostly about Lyndon LaRouche. Notwithstanding the brief time I spent with the two, there were long-standing email and FB exchanges that made me feel as close to them as people I knew in the Trotskyist movement. What we three had in common was old soldiers tales about life in the “vanguard”. We traded stories about battles we fought and laughed at ourselves for having participated in them.

Before speaking about my experiences online with Kevin, I should share a couple of important posts that help put him into context.

The first was a series of Tweets about Kevin from Craig Fowlie, who is the Editorial Director for Routledge’s social sciences division. He leads an editorial team of 120 that included Kevin, a free-lancer. If you have a Twitter account, you can read them here. It begins: “Kevin was a brilliant & extremely knowledgeable researcher whose 1999 book Dreamer of the Day  is one of most important works on post-war fascism.”

In addition, there’s a bibliography of his writings, both in print and online, at Beyond the Fringe Politics, a blog that “features contributions from several researchers, academics and activists who investigate the far right.”

Most importantly, an obituary that appeared as an announcement in the NY Times has appeared at Legacy.com. I urge you to read the whole obit that starts:

Kevin J. Coogan of Queens, New York died unexpectedly on February 27, 2020 at the age of 67. Kevin was an investigative journalist and author. His 1998 book, Dreamer of the Day: Francis Parker Yockey & The Postwar Fascist International, remains one of the most important works on post-war fascism.

Kevin grew up in a loving family in Philadelphia. His parents were both writers. Kevin easily gravitated to books and to writing.

As a high school student, Kevin joined an American New Left faction, Students for a Democratic Society. After matriculating at Sarah Lawrence College, Kevin joined the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC). He left school and drove a cab three nights a week to keep financially afloat. As he put it, after a while, “driving a cab in the middle of the night in 1970s New York was in a way a paid vacation” from what he came to view as a “pretty nasty cult.” In 1979 Kevin quit the NCLC. He wrote critical essays and published several books online about the NCLC’s leader, Lyndon LaRouche.

My first encounter with Kevin took place on August 1, 2017 when he posted the first of 118 comments on my blog. It was in response to the first of a series of articles on Lyndon LaRouche under the title “This is what American fascism looks like: the Lyndon LaRouche story”. Since my intention was to establish LaRouche’s status as a Marxist theoretician and how his current-day movement made points that overlapped leftist websites like Consortium News, Kevin was clearly honing in on the same phenomenon:

I’m writing to call attention to my two studies on LaRouche and the early Labor Committee: Smiling Man from a Dead Planet: The Mystery of Lyndon LaRouche (available at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.UnityNow) and How It All Began: The Origins and History of the National Caucus of Labor Committees in New York and Philadelphia (available at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.HIAB).

These studies appear on a website entitled LaRouche Planet and run by ex-members and aimed at debunking the cult. You can access the home page at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Main.HomePage. LaRouche Planet has just published extremely rare photos of “L. Marcus” on the Columbia campus in 1968 if that interests anyone.

At the time, I had no idea who Kevin was. He posted as Hylozoic Hedgehog, a nom de guerre intended to protect him from LaRouche’s cult. I never asked him what Hylozoic Hedgehog meant but feel confident that it incorporated his worldview. Wikipedia states that “Hylozoism is the philosophical point of view that matter is in some sense alive.” I suppose that Kevin found hylozoism relevant to his own experience since it has an affinity with the ancient Greek philosophers like Democritus whose materialism was analyzed in Marx’s Ph.D. As for the hedgehog, I suppose that is a reference to Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox”. Berlin tried to draw a distinction between hedgehogs, who view the world through a single defining idea and foxes, who draw upon multiple experiences irreducible to a single idea. Berlin did not mention Marx, but clearly he was much more of a hedgehog than a fox. Who knows? Maybe Kevin had an entirely different idea. I only wish he had lived long enough to discuss it with him.

Kevin stuck around after my LaRouche series was finished. He was as knowledgeable about culture as he was about politics. His take on a documentary about the underground filmmaker Barbara Rubin demonstrated his erudition:

It’s really a tremendous film with an amazing sound track among other things. Fans of the Velvet Underground owe it to see the film as do fans of Dylan. But mostly it’s so well edited and the narrative flows beautifully. Because Jonas Mekas was a pack rat, their letters are great, and his reading of his memorial obit for her is particularly touching. It’s a minor masterpiece in its way and it does capture quite well the sense of burn out (a lot of it self-inflicted through drugs — speed in particular) that took over large sections of the counter-culture movement. The scenes at the farm, which was supposed to be the great escape, are especially telling.

Same thing with music. He shared my enthusiasm for the Ken Burns Country Music series on PBS:

I watched almost the whole series on PBS and it’s all great IMO. I can’t say I’ve become a fan of country music in general just as I’m not going to become a fan of rap or heavy metal, but within all these genres there are brilliant songs and artists. I don’t like “rap” but Nas’s Illmatic is one of the greatest albums ever made. I don’t like heavy metal but AC/DC can do no wrong.

I now feel the same way about Hank Williams after watching the series. (I always like Johnny Cash, who really centers the entire Burns’ film.) I got to understand why Kris Kristofferson is the Bob Dylan of country music and why Willie Nelson is such an interesting artist. I still don’t quite get George Jones but it’s my fault, not his.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Burns series is the bond between Bob Dylan and the “folk scene” revival and its overlap into country music. Burns shows this through Dylan and Cash’s friendship. He also shows that bluegrass was dying before it got revived again on college campuses, in part based on “Dueling Banjos.”

I was so excited that I listened again to “Nashville Highway,” which I remember really hating when it first came out.

Listened again and it still sucked.

As for Haggard, there is a great scene in the series where someone says about the line about “we don’t smoke dope in Muskogee” that Haggard when he wrote that line was a huge pot smoker.

The Burns series is really great and minus the sappiness that can weigh him down. The line writing is phenomenal and Coyote’s narration is perfect as always. For me, it’s the best thing he has ever done by far. I learned so much from it.

Like me, Kevin went through a traumatic experience as a LaRouche cult member, just as I was left with practically a case of PTSD after 11 years in the SWP. He was a highly adroit analyst of the “Leninist” illness as this comment on the dissolution of the ISO bears out:

It strikes me that a lot of these sects, like the Labor Committee, were held together by the delusional belief that the members were some morally superior vanguard out to save the world and enlighten the masses with their profound wisdom. In that sense, I don’t see much of a difference sociologically between these vanguard sects and messianic church fundamentalists who created their own little churches with their own “correct” interpretation of sacred texts, by they from Marx or the Book of Mormon.

I can’t help but think that Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity view of religion was reborn in a secular form in the countless cult/sects. The difference in them is that some of them are very nasty (LaRouche/Healy), some of them are bureaucrat nasty (Barnes), some of them are boringly benign and then turn nasty (ISO), and some of them are really off the wall (LaRouche taking first prize honors on that one at least among the Trotsky line).

Decades ago Janja Lalich wrote a very interesting study of the cult/sect she was trapped in for years called the Democratic Workers Party led by Marlene Dixon that is well worth reading in this context. Also Alexandria Stein’s book Inside Out on her really unreal life in a Maoist sect in Minnesota. Her book is truly astonishing in its mix of Kafka and Orwell and Mao.

In my view what makes all these sect/cults chug along is the narcissism of the members who elect to stay year after dreadful year and who believe that by being in the sect/cult (the boundaries are fuzzy and one can bleed into the other) they are members of the “elect” and that ego puff makes them stay when it is clear that they are just treading water at best. At worst, they contribute decades of unpaid “surplus labor” to the group to keep “leadership” in top rate booze as with Dixon or they serve as a vanity press for the likes of a LaRouche or a Healy. They do so because somehow they believe their very “sacrifice” for “the struggle” makes them better than everyone else. There is definitely a symbiotic relationship. Again, I am sure you could find parallels in different Christian sects. Both derive psychological benefits even if it it all emotional junk food.

In a relatively benign sect, who cares? I am guessing that News and Letters will go on forever and a day rather like the last followers of Daniel De Leon whom I met in NYC in the 1980s. But when they turn nasty, they can become a real problem. However in 99.99% of the time they turn nasty towards their own followers and none of this has any impact in the world outside the cult. So no one notices. Of course, as the sects/cults with a “Leninist” frame have a far easier time suppressing dissent. I would say the key difference between a sect and a cult is the degree of internal democracy and transparency (including financial transparency). Sects are transparent and operate more democratically; cults do not. Hence you can start out a sect and morph into a cult but it is almost never the case that it works the other way round.

In any case, there is an obvious sociology/psychology of all these groups that has nothing to do with “correct” or “incorrect” interpretations of Marxist or Christian scripture and a lot to do with issues of personal identity. Over time, most people in these sects wise up and get out but some of them simply transfer their loyalty to a different sect to find the same mental reward. Or they go from serf in one sect to boss in another.

The last comment posted by Kevin appeared on February 22nd, just 12 days before he died.

However, I did hear from him through email on February 14th since he wanted to share some chapters for a book he had worked on years ago about Karl Marx and racism but abandoned. He had the same take as me on Friedrich Sorge’s racism that I analyzed in a CounterPunch article:

Hi Louis,

Some years ago, I began a huge project on Marx and the 19th century. Although my main interest was in the “Great Game” involving England, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire (Marx was a Turkophile), I did get diverted into the Marx/race issue. One reason is that one centerpiece of my study was Marx’s totally obscure book Herr Vogt. Karl Vogt was a leading scientific racist as well as an 1848 revolutionary.

In a way, this project ironically mimicked Capital, which Marx basically gave up after Volume One. I gave up for a lot of reasons, including my belief that I was writing for a Left that no longer existed. The deeper I got, the more I felt this stuff was simply too esoteric for a movement whose intellectual depth was like an inch deep. It just became too big and too depressing.

In any case, here are three draft sections from the book. The first is on Marx and the South and the debates over slavery. I think Marx is awful, but he does evolve a bit from the nadir which is in the 1840s-1850s. But he is terrible.

I also began research into Engels and I spent a bit of time in Manchester. I was trying to find out more about his firm Ermen and Engels. They were a cotton textile firm and Engels was supported in a way by black slave labor as the firm got its cotton from the South. At one point, Engels was even supposed to visit New Orleans.

The second section is on the 1848 radicals and how some of them backed the South. It goes to my investigation of Karl Vogt, a key ideologue of scientific racism and a mentor of Agassiz if I can even remember what I wrote. IN my book, I write as a historian and not a cheerleader. Nor did I find much to cheer about. I entered the project inspired by Hal Draper. At the end, I was amazed at how Draper could write five books and Marx comes out as the hero every time. It felt preposterous.

Section three is on a weird French racial writer who believed geography is destiny that Marx liked and Engels rightly thought was crazy.

Anyway, it’s been over a decade since I abandoned the project as it had grown so massive that it was crushing me for no real purpose that I could see except bringing me down while further isolating me. But I’m sending you these excerpts. If nothing else, I have a lot of great sources in the footnotes.

Again, I have not looked at all this for over a decade. I have no idea if I can defend everything I wrote and I’m also sending you first drafts. Don’t read it as an argument; just read it for background. Frankly, when I was copying sections of it, I could not even remember writing some of them. But I can see from your interest in this topic that there may be leads or suggestions that you might find worthwhile.

Cheers,

Kevin

I am sure that you will find these three chapters as interesting as everything else Kevin ever wrote.

1) Marx Racism 2) Marx Racism 3) Marx Racism

Finally, I have gone through all of the posts that Kevin commented on and categorized them as Kevin Coogan. They all make for great reading, Kevin’s comments and not necessarily my posts!

He will sorely be missed.

4 Comments »

  1. As to the pseudonym “Hylozoic Hedgehog”: Around 1973 (perhaps earlier), LaRouche, then generally known by his pseudonym,
    L. Marcus, started throwing around the term “hylozoic monism.” I suspect that’s where the Hylozoic came from. Coogan used that pseudonym on a board of ex-LaRouchians before publication of his books on LaRouche.

    Comment by alan ginsberg — March 17, 2020 @ 10:05 pm

  2. Sad to hear of his death. I recall his participation here, and thought he was person of unique insight.

    Comment by Richard Estes — March 18, 2020 @ 5:52 am

  3. […] Please also see the tributes to Kevin by his family, by Alexander Reid Ross and by Louis Proyect. […]

    Pingback by Kevin Coogan: A Bibliography | beyondthefringepolitics — March 18, 2020 @ 7:44 pm

  4. Looks like a work of great richness (his Marx Racism work). It’s too bad he didn’t have the confidence to see it to completion. I intend to read all of it.

    Comment by Chris Green — March 22, 2020 @ 5:56 am


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