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Like Father, Like Son by Kevin Keating

Last December, the boring Clintonite weekly The Nation featured acrimonious exchanges between Alexander Cockburn and Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens. Their feud concerned allegations that in the late 1940’s George Orwell provided the names of alleged sympathizers of the Soviet Union to Celia Kirwan, a British intelligence agent Orwell had fallen in love with. In the Dec. 14th Nation, Hitchens refuted the claim that Orwell’s passing a list of names of suspected “fellow travelers” to Kirwan was snitching. Cockburn has responded with increasingly venomous allegations against Orwell. An examination of the Spanish Civil War journalism of Claud Cockburn, Alex’s father, sheds light on Cockburn’s apparent intense personal stake in this matter. Claud’s writings are collected in Cockburn in Spain; Dispatches from the Spanish Civil War, edited by James Pettifer and published by Lawrence and Wishart.

At the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, millions of Spanish wage-slaves and peasants rose in an uprising that was in many ways more profound than the Russian Revolution of 1917, and came close to being the most radical social revolution of all time. The state collapsed in Madrid and Barcelona as the overwhelmingly anarcho-syndicalist working class collectivized the economy of the most industrialized area of Spain, and formed armed militias to defend their gains. Many soldiers and sailors mutinied and came over to the side of the revolution, and most of the officer corps and police were put to flight or killed in two-thirds of the country. In the rural region of Aragon, the revolutionary poor created libertarian communist zones where all wealth was held in common and money and the market economy were abolished. These events were appalling to Stalin and his underlings during the Popular Front period, a period of alliances between the Stalinists and any non-fascist political formations who would have them. Eager to form alliances with French business interests and the British Empire, and buy breathing space for his murderous state capitalist regime, Stalin sent his puppet communist parties and their “International Brigades” to Spain to restore power to the property-owning classes. Anarcho-syndicalist indecisiveness, incapacity and betrayal of the revolutionary movement allowed the Spanish Communist Party and its foreign backers to gain power, disarm the anti-capitalist militias and repress unruly proles and peasants. Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s account of what he saw during the Spanish Civil War, was the first major English language work to reveal that a proletarian revolution had begun in Spain, and that the so-called “Communists” were out to crush it.

For Stalinists of the Popular Front period, everyone who wasn’t a fascist was considered to be a potential ally, including broad sections of the capitalist class, and anyone who wasn’t their ally was smeared as a “fascist”, especially combative elements of the working class. Claud Cockburn was the leading correspondent in Spain for the British Stalinist paper, the Daily Worker. In the 1930’s this paper had a vast circulation among the working class of the U.K. In response to a spontaneous anti-Stalinist uprising by the working class of Barcelona in May 1937, Cockburn helped spread the lie that Hitler and Mussolini had planned the revolt. In the Daily Worker, May 11, 1937, Cockburn wrote, under the pseudonym “Frank Pitcairn”:

“Catalonia is full of German and Italian agents working desperately to reorganize the rebellion against the People’s Front government...German and Italian agents, who poured into Barcelona ostensibly in order to ‘prepare’ the notorious ‘Congress of the Fourth International’ had one big task. It was this: they were - in cooperation with the local Trotskyists - to prepare a situation of disorder and bloodshed... a situation in which the Italian and German governments could land troops or marines on the Catalan coasts...The instrument for all this lay ready to hand for the Germans and Italians in the shape of the Trotskyist organization known as the POUM.” (“Pitcairn lifts Barcelona Veil; Trotskyist rising as signal,” Daily Worker, May 11, 1937, Pages 182 to 184 in the Lawrence and Wishart text)

The Barcelona “May Days” of 1937 was the last large-scale working class insurrection before World War Two. The POUM, the “Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification,” was not a Trot group, but a politically muddled, pro-Bolshevik, social democratic party in whose militia columns many foreign leftists and revolutionaries fought, among them Orwell and the Surrealist poet Benjamin Peret. Although they only offered tepid resistance to the Stalinist counter-revolution, the POUM ended up being destroyed by slander and police terror, and Claud Cockburn helped pedal the slanders:

“In the past, the leaders of the POUM have frequently sought to deny their complicity as agents of a fascist cause against the People’s Front. This time they are convicted out of their own mouths as clearly as their allies, operating in the Soviet Union, who confessed to the crimes of espionage, sabotage and attempted murder against the government of the Soviet Union.”

His reference to confessions in the Soviet Union is Claud Cockburn’s approving nod to the results of the Moscow Trials, a high point of Stalinist totalitarian delirium, where Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev and other leading Bolshevik bureaucrats confessed to absurd charges that they had long been agents of Hitler, the Japanese Emperor and other malefactors, and were subsequently shot.

From Spain in 1937 to May 1968 in France, and Italy in the 1970’s, Stalinist trade union hacks, party flunkies, journalists and cops have fought to defeat every authentic anti-capitalist mass movement of the 20th century. Cockburn in Spain thoroughly documents Claud Cockburn’s role as a parrot for Stalinist counter-revolution and terror during the Spanish Civil War, and George Orwell devoted several pages of Chapter XI of Homage to Catalonia to refuting Cockburn/Pitcairn’s hogwash about the May 1937 events. In his obsessive attention to George Orwell’s now gravely impugned integrity, Alexander Cockburn may be trying to defend the repugnant legacy of his dear old dad. George Orwell was a contradictory character, and a politically confused individual whose English patriotism irreconcilably divides him from authentic enemies of capitalism. If Orwell ratted out his political opponents to a British Intelligence agent, then his actions were almost as contemptible and vile as Claud Cockburn’s public relations work for the murder of working class revolutionaries by Stalinists in Republican Spain. There is no qualitative difference between Orwell’s alleged snitching and Claud Cockburn’s murderous lies.

Kevin Keating

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Updated: 10/29/1999

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