Yesterday we began looking at the late Claud Cockburn, a paid Stalinist hack whose lies about the Spanish Civil War moved George Orwell to write Homage to Catalonia, a forthright, meticulously observed account of that war – and of the bloody war-within-a-war that the Cockburn and his fellow Kremlin functionaries waged against their supposed Republican allies.
In his book, Orwell catalogued the systematic “discrepancies” and “fabrications” that ran “all through the accounts in the Communist press” of events in the Spanish war. Citing a report, for example, in which “Pitcairn” (Cockburn’s pen name) described the POUM as possessing much more in the way of weaponry than it really had, Orwell stated that:
…these tales about tanks, field-guns, and so forth have only been invented because otherwise it is difficult to reconcile the scale of the Barcelona fighting with the P.O.U.M.’s small numbers. It was necessary to claim that the P.O.U.M. was wholly responsible for the fighting; it was also necessary to claim that it was an insignificant party with no following…The only hope of making both statements credible was to pretend that the P.O.U.M. had all the weapons of a modern mechanized army.
All in all, Orwell pronounced it “impossible to read through the reports” about the Spanish Civil War that appeared in the Communist press “without realizing that they are consciously aimed at a public ignorant of the facts and have no other purpose than to work up prejudice.” Thus Cockburn’s statement that the Trotskyites fighting on the Republican side had been suppressed by the Popular Army (that is, the Spanish Republican Army, the main Republican faction):
The idea here is to give outsiders the impression that all Catalonia was solid against the “Trotskyists.” But the Popular Army remained neutral throughout the fighting; everyone in Barcelona knew this, and it is difficult to believe that Mr Pitcairn did not know it too. Or again, the juggling in the Communist Press with the figures for killed and wounded, with the object of exaggerating the scale of the disorders.
This, then, was Claud Cockburn – a bought-and-paid-for propagandist for Josef Stalin. A Kremlin mouthpiece who, like America’s own Walter Duranty, disguised himself as an objective reporter.
And yet, as we’ve said, Cockburn enjoyed immense respectability among the media establishment on both sides of the pond. Remembering him four years ago, the New Yorker‘s Hendrik Hertzberg managed to make Claud’s appalling politics sound like merely one of several equally important, and equally colorful, personal attributes. Claud, wrote Hertzberg,
was a wit, a Communist, and a talented journalist — quite a combination. [Imagine writing, with obvious admiration, that someone “was a wit, a Nazi, and a talented journalist — quite a combination.”] Claud was versatile enough to report for both the Times (of London) and the Daily Worker (also of London). [Imagine writing, again with obvious admiration, that someone “was versatile enough to report for both the Times and Der Stürmer.”] In the nineteen-thirties, he started a scabrous, funny, influential, and badly printed paper called The Week, edited by him and discreetly financed by the Comintern. [Imagine…oh, never mind, you get the idea.] The Kremlin, alas, got its money’s worth; but on matters to which Moscow was indifferent (or which happened to serve its interests), The Week broke news that was true and important.
Note that “discreetly”; note that “alas.” The overall effect is to make propagandizing for (and accepting money from) Stalin look not like a reprehensible activity but like a sign of, as Hertzberg puts it, admirable professional versatility.