In the last couple of days, we’ve met Claud Cockburn (1904-81), a loyal Stalinist stooge who was actually taken seriously – and respected – as a journalist, and his son Alexander (1941-2012), ditto.
Repeatedly, Cockburn fils strove to understate the scale of Stalin’s crimes. In a March 1989 piece for The Nation, he expressed outrage at Soviet historian Roy Medvedev’s statement that about 20 million people had “died in labor camps, forced collectivization, famine and executions” under Stalin. Professing to find “a suspect symmetry about the number 20 million, which is the same total normally reckoned for Soviet losses in the war against Hitler,” Cockburn charged Medvedev with seeking to establish a “symmetry…between Stalin and Hitler.” Cockburn thereupon launched into a strained, desperate argument the manifest objective of which was to try to bring the number of Stalin’s victims down as much as possible. Like many another minimizer of Stalin’s crimes, Cockburn also took on Robert Conquest, mockingly referring to him as “the British chevalier de la guerre foide” and finding various exceedingly obscure professors who were willing to sneer at Conquest on the record.
Cockburn knew it was impossible to totally rehabilitate Stalin, and always offered the obligatory acknowledgment that Stalin was, indeed, a bad guy. His modest goal was simply to ensure that Hitler remained unchallenged as the most evil dictator of the 20th century. In order to accomplish this objective, Alex needed to keep the numbers of Stalin’s victims below Hitler’s, and to insist that while Hitler committed genocide, Stalin did not.
But that wasn’t all. Cockburn rooted for Stalin’s successors, too. Here’s Harold Meyerson, whom we quoted yesterday: “Alex also periodically issued forth with defenses of Brezhnev, which was more remarkable yet: While Stalin retained a few nostalgic apologists, Brezhnev had virtually none. I still remember one column in which Alex enthused about the rise in the number of refrigerators in the Soviet Union.”
In an August 1991 op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Cockburn admitted that the collapse of the USSR made him “sad.” After all, “The Soviet Union defeated Hitler and fascism.” Never mind the total (and typical) omission from this picture of the role of the western Allies: what Cockburn was celebrating here was the defeat of one form of totalitarianism by another. “Without the Soviet threat,” he claimed, “there would have been no Marshall Plan.” This is kind of like giving a deadly disease credit for the discovery of its cure. “There would never have been the International Brigades, the workers my father used to describe to me when I was a boy. He met them in the trenches in Spain after they’d crossed the Atlantic or ridden the rails across Europe, mustered to defend the republic against Franco, fascism and the complicity of the Western powers.” We’ve already seen the disgraceful role that Cockburn’s father played in that war, in which he’d not only fought against Franco but consorted with the murderers of Republican soldiers who were actually fighting for freedom, rather than for Stalin.