He was one of those prominent British figures of the last century who seem to have known or been related to just about everybody else of public consequence. Married first to journalist Hope Hale Davis, second to journalist Jean Ross (on whom Christopher Isherwood is said to have modeled his character Sally Bowles, the heroine in Cabaret), and third to journalist Patricia Byron (mother of his journalist sons Alexander, Andrew, and Patrick), Claud Cockburn (1904-81) was a cousin of Evelyn Waugh and the grandfather of TV journalists Laura and Stephanie Flanders and actress Olivia Wilde.
He was also one of those prominent British figures whose extreme anti-democratic and anti-capitalist political views didn’t keep them from luxuriating in their own economic privilege – or to put the slightest dent in their perceived social respectability.
And when we say extreme, we mean it. Cockburn was an out-and-out Stalinist. He’s rightly been called a “Stalinist shill.” While serving in the International Brigades, which fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, he “covered” the war for the British Daily Worker, writing under the name Frank Pitcairn. He was nothing remotely resembling a legitimate journalist, however; he was, quite simply, a Kremlin propaganda operative, and his closest comrades during his sojourn in Spain were Soviet agents, whose systematic murders of non-Communist Republicans he knew all about – and kept secret. His “reportage” from the front was in fact dictated from beginning to end by his bosses in Moscow, at whose behest he depicted decent liberals and socialists who were fighting for a truly free Spain (as opposed to a Soviet puppet state) as fascists, spies, saboteurs, and murderers. In one article, he actually invented an entire battle, his goal being to make the fascists look weaker than they really were, and thus win French support for the the Republicans.
As one socialist writer has put it, “Claud Cockburn’s slanders helped prepare the atmosphere in which [Andres] Nin [head of the POUM, a Spanish party that sought to be a Communist alternative to the Kremlin-directed Communist Party of Spain] and others were murdered. Moreover, his articles were published in the midst of the infamous Moscow Trials. His lies played an objective role in assisting in Stalin’s mass extermination of the Soviet socialist intellectuals and workers.” Cockburn’s “misrepresentations of the Spanish Civil War,” noted Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect, “prodded George Orwell to write Homage to Catalonia.” We’ll look at that masterwork tomorrow.