November 15, 1995
If all journalists are either hedgehogs or foxes, Andrew Kopkind was indubitably a fox. He knew-- or at least wrote knowingly about-- a great many things: Mississippi, Alabama, Detroit, Newark, Chicago, Watts, South Boston; Jamaica, Czechoslovakia, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Chiapas; SNCC, MFDP, ERAP, NLF, ANC; Fannie Lou Hamer, Allard Lowenstein, Madame Binh, Joe Namath, Janis Joplin, Jesse Jackson, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker; disco, Stonewall, Arica, cocaine; and a lot more. As much of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties jostles into The Thirty Years’ Wars as you are likely to find anywhere between two covers.
Kopkind wandered all over the journalistic as well as the political landscape. In the early l960s he spent three years (amusingly described in the biographical Prologue) at Time. In 1965 he began reporting for the New Republic and New Statesman. In the anni mirabiles 1967 and 1968 he hurled radical thunderbolts from the New York Review of Books. The l970s found him mostly in New Left mags (Mayday, Hard Times, New Times) and alternative rags (the Boston Phoenix, the Real Paper, the Voice). From the l980s until his death last year he was based at the Nation. Occasional gigs for quality media like House and Garden, a very successful radio program co-produced with John Scagliotti, and a semi-legendary Vermont commune added further texture to what sounds like a pretty lively life.
The subtitle of The Thirty Years’ War identifies Kopkind as a “radical journalist.” I suspect he cared more about the first half of that tag, but I’d prefer to emphasize the second. The best pieces in this collection are the most concrete, particular, descriptive: i.e., “journalistic” in the ordinary sense, except that Kopkind was writing from where few ordinary journalists went. One superb piece follows the Child Development Group of Mississippi through the summer of 1965, as it struggled against local harassment and bureaucratic obtuseness to set up pre-school centers for black children. “The Lair of the Black Panther” (1966) takes the reader around Lowndes County, Alabama, as SNCC tries to register black voters:
"The outsider can only dimly perceive how Lowndes Negroes live, in their paintless wood shacks, up the dark-red dirt roads and across the flat fields
Families are huddled in small dusty rooms crowded with beds, a wood—burning stove and, usually, a television set, for which they will pay an itinerant salesman for years to come. The better houses have glass windows; the poorer ones have wooden shutters that close in the darkness when it is cold or rainy outside. If there is anything on the walls inside, it is a coating of old Saturday Evening Post pages."
“Doctor’s Plot” (1967) profiles Captain Howard Levy, MD, who refused to train Special Forces medics and was court—martialled. There’s a finely observed piece on postwar Vietnamese refugees at Fort Chafee, Arkansas; a poignant and sardonic report from the FSU (former Soviet Union); and many others of similarly high quality, at least in part. Kopkind had a talent for getting himself into interesting situations. When he simply rendered them-- simply looked and listened-- the results were often marvelous.
When he interpreted them, the results were more mixed. One of his most celebrated and characteristic pieces, “Soul Power,” appeared in the New York Review after the 1967 Newark riots. “Mass action has convulsed the society ... the old order has been shattered . . . it is not unlikely that in the next months or years vast urban areas will be under long-term military rule ... Martin Luther King, CORE, the black politicians, the old SNCC, are all beside the point. Where the point is is in the streets.” This rhetorical bravado was unfortunately typical. “To be a revolutionary is to love your life enough to change it, to choose struggle instead of exile, to risk everything with only the glimmering hope of a world to win.” “We know now that even if all Martin Luther King’s programs were enacted, and all Jerome Cavanaugh’s reforms were adopted, and [Lyndon Johnson’s] Great Society materialized before our very eyes, there would still be the guerrillas.” And perhaps most famously, and fatuously:
"The Movement is dead; the Revolution is unborn. The streets are bloody and ablaze, but it is difficult to see why and impossible to know for what end. Government on every level is ineffectual, helpless to act either in the short term or the long. The force of army and police seems not to suppress violence but to incite it. Mediators have no space to work; they command neither resources nor respect, and their rhetoric is discredited in all councils, by all classes. The old words are meaningless, the old explanations irrelevant, the old remedies useless. It is the worst of times.
It is the best of times. The wretched of this American earth are together as they have never been before, in motion if not in movement. No march, no sit-in, no boycott ever touched so many. The social cloth that binds and suffocates them is tearing at its seamiest places. The subtle methods of co-optation work no better to keep it intact than the brutal methods of repression; if it is any comfort, liberalism proves hardly more effective than fascism. Above all, there is a sense that the continuity of an age has been cut, that we have arrived at an infrequent fulcrum of history, and that what comes now will be vastly different from what went before."
Here and elsewhere Kopkind underestimated-- to put it mildly-- the legitimacy, in both senses, of American politics. To a far greater extent than he recognized, the American polity commands the allegiance of its citizens; and it deserves to, not only (if most obviously) for lack of any so-far intelligible alternative, but also because the American civic and constitutional tradition is rich and vital, though lately fallen on hard times. Acknowledging this would have hobbled Kopkind’s revolutionary romanticism, slowed his rhetorical reflexes, and generally taken a lot of wind out of his sails. In particular, it would have complicated his automatic disparagement of liberalism, his blanket dismissal of reform, his routine execration of “the system,” his compulsive invocation of “revolution,” and his vague intimations of “liberation.” It would have qualified his too—generous admiration for rioters, guerrillas, Panthers, and Weathermen. Most usefully, it might have induced him to supplement his smooth and stylish agitprop with a little more (preferably a lot more) analytical nuance and statistical detail. “Comment is free, facts are expensive,” Alexander Cockburn reminds himself in The Golden Age Is In Us. Someone should have reminded Kopkind from time to time.
Cockburn fans will be relieved to hear that, notwithstanding its sappy title, his new collection shows him as cheeky as ever. The Golden Age Is In Us is an (apparently) artless jumble of the personal, political, and philosophical: journal entries, letters to and from, snatches of columns from the Nation and elsewhere, droll or uplifting passages from Adorno, Samuel Johnson, et al, and numerous miscellanea, exotica, and curiosa. There’s a vivid description of Watsonville, California, after the last quake; a hilarious interview with Helmut Newton; a jolly anecdote about Gertrude Stein’s dog; a fan letter (!) from Charlton Heston; and several hundred other entertaining and/or informative bits, from a few lines to a few pages long. Somehow they all hang together. It’s not an achieved, plotted unity; it’s spontaneous, as though he exhaled prose. Perhaps it’s simply that Cockburn is, after all, Irish. Anyway, it’s a literary gem.
Politically, it’s a flawed gem. Mostly it’s the usual hard-hitting, fact-packed, dead-on stuff. Embarrassing lapses into polemical thuggishness are gratifyingly rare (only two-- one each aimed at David Horowitz and Irving Howe-- in 400-plus pages). But now and then, just often enough to get under one’s skin, there’s a teasing flicker of residual Leninism.
For example, apropos of the failed Soviet coup of August 1991, Cockburn remarks ruefully: “The night before the Russian Revolution in 1917 many of the comrades began to shift around in their seats, saying maybe this wasn’t the right time to seize power after all. Lenin walked halfway across the city in the middle of the night to stiffen the spine of the Bolshevik central committee. Maybe it would have been better if Lenin had stayed home in bed.” Not, however, because millions were subsequently starved or shot, tens of millions imprisoned, whole populations deported, the environment poisoned far beyond anything in the West, the country political and moral culture so debased that even bourgeois morality is unattainable in Russia for a generation or (probably) more, and the once-immense prestige and liberatory potential of genuine Marxism and socialism destroyed, perhaps forever. Rather because Cockburn would be spared the unseemly post-coup spectacle of “Western ambassadors supervising the restoration of constitutional order, while Boris Yeltsin thanks George Bush for his support in these difficult hours.” A bitter pill, that, but surely not the best reason for regretting Lenin’s fanaticism.
Similarly, Cockburn replies testily to an interviewer that “before the killings in Tienanmen Square, I thought China was, effectively, a fascist government. And I wrote so.” Yet in another interview only a few months (and pages) earlier, with Harry Magdoff and Paul Sweezy of Monthly Review this exchange occurs:
AC: How do you think Mao looks these days?
PS: I think he looks great.
AC: Why do you think Mao looks so good?
PS: Because he said the kind of things-- believed them and really inspired people to believe them-- which have to be done to have a decent society. “Serve the people.” “Public service, not private gain Marx, if he had come back alive, would have said that Mao’s his boy. ... Mao is the only real Marxist at the leadership level in the post-Marx period.
This was a perfect opportunity for Cockburn to have mentioned his conviction that “China was, effectively, a fascist government” (unless, for some reason, he believes that Mao’s government was less oppressive than Deng’s); to have pointed out gently to his interlocutors that Mao was a murderous lunatic with a plausible claim to have unleashed more cruelty and suffering than anyone else in history (always excepting A.H.); and to have suggested tactfully to Magdoff and Sweezy that Monthly Review’s steadfast defense of totalitarian pseudo-socialism did enormous intellectual and moral damage to the American left. But the opportunity is missed.
This blind spot about Leninism, probably a quirk of personal history or temperament, seems to me the only serious flaw in Cockburn’s writing. What’s serious about it is not that it may contribute to bringing about a Leninist revolution in the United States-- fortunately not a possibility-- but that it furnishes superficial or dishonest people (plenty of honest and intelligent people, too) with an easy excuse for ignoring Cockburn’s extremely powerful criticism. Absent this flaw, most such people would of course find some other excuse, but it would be more difficult for them. And as Cockburn would surely agree, making life more difficult for superficial and dishonest people is not the least important responsibility of intellectuals.