The great leftwing polemicist Alexander Cockburn died Friday night after a two-year bout with cancer.

His voice was one of the most eloquent, his pen among the most piercing, of any leftwing writer of the last 35 years.

He wrote first for the Village Voice and then The Nation, a ride that was not without turbulence. He didn’t mind the turbulence; he liked to create it, especially on issues of principle.

He also wrote an op-ed column for several years in the Wall Street Journal, pre-Murdoch.

And for the past 16 years, he was the co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the newsletter Counterpunch.

“He taught at least two generations how to think, how to look at the world, how to live a life of resistance,” St. Clair wrote in a loving farewell at

Cockburn did nine books with St. Clair, including “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs, and the Press,” “Imperial Crusades,” “Dime’s Worth of Difference,” and “End Times: Death of the Fourth Estate.”

And we at The Progressive magazine were fortunate enough to publish him several times.

I first started reading the British-born Cockburn in 1980. Until then, I didn’t know that it was kosher to write with such verve and venom. For a young, aspiring political writer, it was a real rabbit trick. And I wanted to learn how.

Throughout the 1980s, Cockburn, more than any other writer in America, exposed the blatant lies and murderous frauds that the Reagan Administration was issuing. He highlighted Reagan’s shameful support for the death squads in El Salvador and his illegal war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

Cockburn had no use for Democratic Presidents, either. He criticized Jimmy Carter for his policies in El Salvador and East Timor.

And he excoriated Bill Clinton for destroying welfare and for pushing through his punitive crime bill.

“If ever there was a false populist, it was Clinton,” he said in a talk in Chicago in 1998. (You can see seven and a half minutes of that talk here.)

Cockburn also saw through Obama before almost anyone else.

“I’ve never heard a politician so desperate not to offend conventional elite opinion while pretending to be fearless and forthright,” he wrote in December 2006 at counterpunch.

He said Obama sent an early “signal to the corporate powers and Party donors that here was no boat-rocker from Chicago, but a safe pair of hands and an obedient pair of heels.”

I didn’t always agree with him—he had his head in the sand on global warming—but I admired his style.

Like many progressives, I’ll miss Alexander Cockburn’s clarity, his fearlessness, his disdain for the Dems, his indictment of the corporate media, and his deft phrase-turning.

He also had a left-libertarian streak that was appealing. He seemed to enjoy life. I met him a couple of times, and he was terrific company: witty, perceptive, and a wonderful storyteller, at ease talking about politics, literature, sex.

If he didn’t take himself too seriously, he took his job seriously: to strip the clothes off of emperors everywhere.

And progressives around the country—and around the world—are in his debt for that.

If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Obama Strikes Populist Chord on Taxes."

Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter

Add new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.


It's finally setting in: Trump is Trump and he’s not going to change because of winning the nomination.

The new head of the Environmental Protection has a history of suing the agency for trying to do its job.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

Public School Shakedown

Progressive Media Project