Alexander Claud Cockburn (pronounced COE-burn) was born in Scotland on June 6, 1941. Like his journalist younger brothers Patrick and Andrew, he was the son of Patricia Cockburn, the third wife of the British Stalinist Claud Cockburn, after whom Alexander modeled his life, ideology, and writing. Sir George Cockburn, an English admiral who helped burn down the White House during the War of 1812, was one of Alexander Cockburn’s ancestors; the late mystery writer Sarah Caudwell was his half-sister; actress Olivia Wilde was his niece; and journalists Laura Flanders and Stephanie Flanders were his half-nieces.
Raised in County Cork, Ireland, Alexander Cockburn earned a degree in English literature and language from Oxford University in 1963. He subsequently worked on the editorial committee of the New Left Review and became its managing editor in 1966. He also served as an assistant editor at the Times Literary Supplement, and in 1967 he took a job with the socialist New Statesman. In the ’60s as well, Cockburn spoke reverentially about “the astonishing works of Mao Tse Tung — philosopher and general, poet and statesman.”
Cockburn immigrated to America in 1972 and became a permanent U.S. resident the following year. He wrote articles for The Village Voice from 1973 to 1983, at which point he was suspended from his job for having accepted (in 1982) a $10,000 grant from a pro-Arab educational foundation, which the Voice editors considered a conflict of interest. Columbia University professor Edward Said had recommended Cockburn for that grant.
In 1984 Cockburn began a 28-year stint with The Nation, where he wrote a weekly column called “Beat the Devil,” after one of his father’s novels. He also wrote regularly for The New York Review of Books, Esquire, Harper’s magazine, Atlantic Monthly, and the Wall Street Journal. From 1994-2012 Cockburn wrote for the online publication CounterPunch, which he co-edited with Jeffrey St. Clair.
A staunch and passionate defender of the Soviet Union, Cockburn: (a) preposterously claimed that fewer than a million people had died in the infamous purges of Joseph Stalin; (b) wrote that the USSR under Leonid Brezhnev’s leadership (1964-82) represented “the golden age of the Soviet working class”; (c) expressed high praise for the newspaper of the Trotskyist Spartacist League; and (d) justified the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by saying that “[i]f ever a country deserved rape, it’s Afghanistan.” Historian Ronald Radosh observes that Cockburn “regularly reprinted Soviet and Cuban disinformation from their intelligence agencies as unadulterated truths.”
An unwavering foe of capitalism, Cockburn praised the 1999 anti-globalization riots that ravaged Seattle.
Throughout his professional life, Cockburn was consistently critical of U.S. foreign policy. In the aftermath of 9/11, for instance, he condemned the “terrifying alliance of Judeo-Christian fanatics, conjoined in their dreams of the recovery of the Holy Lands of the West Bank, Judaea, and Samaria.”
Cockburn’s contempt for Israel was profound. In 2003 he said that because “one of the most powerful lobbies in the United States is the Israel lobby,” it is “very hard, almost impossible, for a member of Congress to say anything hostile to Israel, as regards its treatment of the Palestinians, without suffering immediate sanctions.” Moreover, he denounced “the policies in Israel causing people to have their houses destroyed, their orchards ripped up, [and] the terrible fence [the separation barrier in the West Bank] that’s stealing more and more Palestinian land.” In an interview four years later, Cockburn said: “I think Israel is secure…. It’s protected by the United States. I don’t see any threat to Israel’s survival, it’s ludicrous to say so. I do see a threat to [the] survival of Palestinians, who are living on, what, a dollar a day in Gaza.” Writer John-Paul Pagano once called Cockburn “the last notable First-World purveyor of blood libel,” noting that the latter, along with authors like Alison Weir and Donald Bostrom, “want you to believe … that Israel maintains the occupation of the Palestinians in part to shore up its reserves of organs for Jews in need of donations.” Continues Pagano: “This is necessary, the conspiracy theory goes, because Israel, owing to the religious compunctions of devout Jews, has a very low supply of donor organs.”
Regarding illegal immigration to America, Cockburn in 2007 said “it is fundamentally wrong for a country, such as the United States, to have a lot of its economy posited on labor, demanding labor, which they then cause to be ‘illegal’.” Further, he described illegal immigration as a rational response to American free-trade policies “which destroy Mexican agriculture” and thereby “make it impossible in the Southern countries for a peasantry to survive and make a go of it.”
In 2009 Cockburn gave up his Irish citizenship to become a U.S. citizen. That same year, he began writing a column for the magazine Chronicles, wherein he routinely complained about American imperialism and corporate corruption.
In 2011 Cockburn praised the Occupy Wall Street movement for “the simplicity and truth of its basic message: The few are rich, the many are poor. In terms of its pretensions, the capitalist system has failed.” In January 2012 Cockburn spoke at an Occupy rally in Eureka, California, where he said: “It is unacceptable to have 1% earning almost all the wealth…. It is unacceptable that wars are fought for the benefit of the 1%…. We cannot have a situation where everything is owned by the 1%.”
On July 21, 2012, Cockburn died of cancer in Germany, where he had been receiving treatment.
For additional information on Alexander Cockburn, click here.
Further Reading: “Alexander Cockburn Obituary” (Guardian.com, 7-22-2012); “Alexander Cockburn, Acerbic Writer and Critic, Dies at 71” (NY Times, 7-22-2012); “Alexander Cockburn” (TheNation.com); “Alexander Cockburn, 1941-2012” (NewLeftReview.org); “Alexander Cockburn” (Britannica.com); “Alexander Cockburn: Mellowed Radical” (by John Fund, 7-23-2012).