Cockburn and the Workers World Party
by Mark Hand
I was flipping through some back issues of a zine I used to publish called Big Forehead Express, checking out what I had written back in the period from late August 1990 to January 1991, when President George Bush I was preparing for his turkey shoot with the Iraqis. I wanted to see how I had interpreted the rhetoric of the U.S. government and its mouthpieces in the establishment press during that six-month span.
Turning the pages of the January-February 1991 issue, I stumbled across something I hadn’t expected. It wasn’t a rant I had authored against the Washington Post or Thomas Friedman. No, it was a piece I had written lamenting the fact that Alexander Cockburn had suggested in his Beat the Devil column that antiwar Americans stay away from a particular demonstration scheduled to gather in D.C. because he didn’t like the stance the demonstration’s sponsors had taken on Saddam Hussein. The group behind the organization of that 1991 demonstration was the Workers World Party.
Here’s how I gently took Cockburn to task in that issue of Big Forehead Express for what he had written in his Dec. 31, 1990, column in The Nation: “I, like Alexander Cockburn, believe that the Iraqi warmongers should be vehemently denounced as I have done repeatedly in these very pages. But, unlike Alexander Cockburn, I have no intention of declaring war on any particular sector of the growing anti-U.S. intervention crowd at the expense of lessening the heat off the murderers in the White House, State Department, Pentagon and other government agencies.”
Did Cockburn deserve to be accused of declaring war on the Workers World Party? I’ll let you decide for yourself. Here’s how he began that Dec. 31, 1990 column that got me slightly riled:
“I wish people would stop writing to remind me that in the 1930s leftists of principle — Trotsky and Togliatti are two favorites cited by my correspondents — supported feudal Ethiopia against the invading Italians. The inference is that today leftists of principle should espouse the cause of Iraq and eschew criticism of Saddam Hussein. This is MarxismLeninism-Bonkerism of a sort much savored by the Workers World Party, which seems to be the animating force behind the Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East, decorated by Ramsey Clark.”
Nothing too inflammatory or contradictory in the column’s lede, unless you’re a WWPer and don’t like the Bonkerism reference. Later in the column, Cockburn said he was “heartened to learn that not everyone who is generally on the left has to be tongue-tied when it comes to condemning Saddam for his invasion of Kuwait.”
He quotes someone from Lebanon who had written him to express his or her dissatisfaction with the factions of the left who were organizing the antiwar protests at the time. Cockburn said his correspondent wrote that he or she had “felt alienated from the various coalitions against U.S. intervention in the Middle East, particularly because they would not articulate a direct position against Saddam’s invasion.”
To conclude his piece, Cockburn offers guidance to Nation readers on what protests to attend in January to coincide with George Bush I’s deadline for Saddam to exit Kuwait. Here’s what he suggested people do:
“[T]he Bonkerists insist that Saddam and Iraq not be criticized, thus instantly placing themselves in an immoral and tactically impossible situation, as anyone talking about the crisis on television or radio will understand. The Bonkerists also see the UN purely as a U.S. cat’s-paw.
“The end result of this is the denunciation by the Bonkerists of anyone approving of sanctions or critical of Iraq as a ‘tool of imperialism’ — their imputation when men like Eqbal Ahmad and Noam Chomsky insist that Iraq’s invasion should be denounced, just as U.S. war plans should be resisted. The Bonkerists are having their demonstration in Washington on January 19. People interested in a broad-based peace drive should go to the one organized by the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East on January 26.”
Let’s fast-forward to see what Cockburn is saying today about the organizers of demonstrations of opposition against Bush II’s insane fixation on Saddam.
In a Nov. 26 post on CounterPunch’s website, Cockburn writes:
“Not so long ago I decried the effort by Marc Cooper, David Corn, Todd Gitlin and others to redbait the current antiwar movement, insinuating that all the demonstrators are dupes of Saddam Hussein, Ramsay Clark and the Workers World Party. Corn went on the O'Reilly Show to reiterate his allegation of dupedom.
“Someone has to do the organizing, and thus far it’s been the Workers World Party, which doesn’t mean that everyone left the recent demos in DC and the Bay Area with the WWP’s secret plan for revolution burned into their synapses.”
Earlier, in a Nov. 14 post on CounterPunch’s website, Cockburn had written a few paragraphs applauding those people who had attended the late-October antiwar demonstrations in D.C. and across the United States, some of which were organized by Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, a group affiliated with the Workers World Party.
“Today? We have the premonition of a big anti-war movement. Like the SWP 40 years ago, the Workers World Party did much of the organizing of the recent demonstrations. This doesn’t mean the 150,000 or so who marched in the Bay Area and in Washington D.C. are dupes of Karl Marx, Ramsey Clark and Saddam Hussein, as some have alleged — but merely that organizing big demonstrations takes a lot of dedication, energy and experience. I have a dream, said Martin Luther King, and so he did, but the Communists in the south helped him put flesh on that dream, as they did the dreams of Rosa Parks.”
I see a contradiction in what Cockburn is saying today about demonstrations organized by the Workers World Party vs. what he was suggesting 12 years ago. He contends that the WWP was trying to silence any criticism of Saddam back in 1990-91 and that the group’s embrace of this policy should have disqualified its demonstrations from receiving the support of any part of the 70% of Americans, including reasonable leftists, who were against the war at the time before the first U.S. bombs started raining down on Saddam’s Republican Guard in Kuwait and Iraq.
Today, even though the WWP may not be as anti-Taliban or anti-Al Queda as some Americans would like, Cockburn is not calling for a boycott of WWP-sponsored demonstrations. Calling for a boycott would be wrong, because, as he eloquently argues, every movement needs a catalyst. He recognizes that the Socialist Workers Party played an important role in the antiwar organizing of the 1960s and the WWP is doing the same today.
Cockburn definitely has changed his tune from one Iraq war to the next. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind, though. It’s healthy to reassess your opinions so you don’t get stuck too deep in a rut that you’re unable to recognize potential contradictions or inconsistencies in your thought.
I’m glad Cockburn is singing this new tune. In fact, I think it’s a political shift he made several years ago, perhaps during the first four years of Clinton’s presidency. Doesn’t it make sense to locate common ground that you may share with your traditional political foes and then work on building bridges that could help you find success on certain issues?
In his Nov. 14 CounterPunch article, Cockburn emphasizes how adopting this simple approach to antiwar organizing could work wonders for the movement: “If the left could ever reach out to this right, which it’s almost constitutionally incapable of doing, we’ll have something.”