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Books: A Colossal Wreck

Cockburn's colossal achievements in radical journalism

A Colossal Wreck

by Alexander Cockburn

(Verso, £20)

This book by Alexander Cockburn, who died last year, is a collection of his journalistic writings over the last two decades.

He was the son of communist Claud Cockburn, a famous Daily Worker reporter from the front in the Spanish civil war and subsequently a columnist in the paper under the name of Frank Pitcairn.

Cockburn much admired his father and the Daily Worker, commenting that to get really old it pays to have been a communist or fellow-traveller as in younger days they walked a lot, selling the paper. And they never stopped thinking.

He settled in the US as a young man in the 1970s and became known as a talented polemical writer and Marxist in leading newspapers and periodicals, where radicals were accepted as long as they did not identify with a political movement or party.

Dubya Bush's time was a period of great gloom for Cockburn, with ever-increasing power to the executive, whose definition of terrorism became so broad that offences once categorised as vandalism become "terrorism." It was a period when the FBI gained access to bank accounts, credit cards and employment records, without a court order or evidence of criminal activity.

Given the current situation in Syria, it's salutary to read Cockburn's catalogue of the times the US has deployed chemical weapons, including the infection of 400 mostly black prisoners with malaria, the use of bio-agents against North Korea and China and the admission by a Cuban exile leader of a germ attack on Cuba in 1980, causing dengue fever that killed 188 people.

Cockburn remarked as long ago as 1980 that Saddam Hussein had a long way to go to catch up with the US in the chemical weapons stakes.

He was scathing about the US media - "totally shielded from the truth behind ramparts guarded by a coalition of media liars" - and he lamented the loss of the variety of opinions provided by radio in the 1960s, when a broadcaster could own only a dozen stations in that country. Today one company owns over 800 stations, "all pumping out identical muck in all states." An example cited is Condoleezza Rice's eulogy of the birth of a new Middle East as Lebanon lay in ruins and Israel bombed 300,000 refugees.

Cockburn notes that Iraq in the 1980s was a model oil-producing economy, climbing out of the Third World, with a good health system and plenty of goods in the shops. Along with fellow journalist Richard Gott, Cockburn believed that the basic US aim in the 1991 and 2003 wars was to thrust Iraq back into Third World poverty, with recovery on US terms.

He quoted his father's saying that "when all seems dark, try reading a little Marx. It put things in perspective." But Cockburn took issue with Verso's 150th anniversary edition of the Communist Manifesto and Eric Hobsbawm's introduction abandoning class struggle and revolution in favour of environmentalism becoming the countervailing force, not as a movement implying action and struggle but as one managing global capitalism well.

That's just one example of the fascinating material in this rich treasury of courageous and crusading journalism.

John Moore


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