25 Years After Vietnam: Beyond Left and Right


I got an invitation to speak a couple of months ago from an outfit called antiwar.com, which is run by a young fellow called Justin Raimundo. “Antiwar.com is having its second annual national conference March 24 & 25, and we’d like you to be the luncheon speaker,” Raimundo wrote. “The conference will be held at the Villa Hotel, in San Mateo (near the airport). The theme of the conference is ‘Beyond Left & Right: The New Face of the Antiwar Movement.’ We have invited a number of speakers spanning the political spectrum. Confirmed so far: Patrick J. Buchanan, Tom Fleming (of Chronicles magazine), Justin Raimondo (Antiwar.com), Kathy Kelly (Iraq Aid), Alan Bock (Orange County Register), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), representatives of the Serbian Unity Congress, and a host of others.”

Raimundo seasoned his invite with a burnt offering, in the form of flattery, always pleasing to the nostrils: “All of us here at Antiwar.com are big fans of your writing: we met, once, at a meeting during the Kosovo war where you bravely took up the fight for the united front left-right alliance against imperialist war. We can promise you a small honorarium, a lunch, free admission to all conference events — and a good time.”

As a seasoned analyst of such communications, my eye of course fell sadly upon the words “small honorarium” ? a phrase that in my case usually means somewhere between $l50 and $350. I’d already noted that even though our task was to transcend the tired categories of left and right, I was the only leftist mentioned, with the possible exception of Kathy Kelly, from that splendid organization, Voices in the Wilderness, which campaigns to lift the UN sanctions on Iraq.

Being a libertarian Justin had boldly added the prospect of a “good time”. Leftist invitations rarely admit this possibility in formal political communications, even in the distant days when the left supposedly had a lock on drugs and sex.

I said I’d be happy to join in such an enterprise, and in due course got some angry e-mails from lefties who seem to feel that any contiguity with Buchanan is a crime, even if the subject was gardening and Dutch tulipomania in the seventeenth century.

Dear Alexander Cockburn: I read with horror that you are speaking at an event (the Anti-War.com conference) where Pat Buchannan is the keynote speaker. How could you knowing that PB’s policies are what could only be called fascist? I generally agree with your opinion on imperialism, and supported your view of Seattle. However speaking at an event which will amongst other things help to give Mr. Buchanan respectability, is unconscionable. I hope you will reconsider. If not, we will probably be able to greet each ohter, when you cross our picket line.

Dean Tuckerman P.S. I am a member of Anti-Racist Action Bay Area.

Dear Dean, thanks for yr note. So far as Buchanan is concerned, I assume he was invited because he opposed the war in Kossovo, and calls for the lifting of sanctions against Iraq. There is a lot that’s funky abt American isolationism, but frankly, I don’t mind sharing a conference schedule with someone who opposes war on Serbs and on Iraqi kids. Nor do I think B is any more of a fascist — in practical terms — than Albright and Clinton and Gore and Bradley, with the first three literally with the blood of millions on their hands. Go find Mailer’s interview with Buchanan in Esquire a few years ago. See you on the picket lines.

Best, Alex Cockburn

I pondered what to wear, deciding finally on a t-shirt advertising the Fully Informed Jury Association, a group upholding the powers of the jury to set aside the law and rule as the jurors’ understanding of the case and their consciences dictate. FIJA is also anathema to lefties, who equate juries with redneck juries in the south in the early l960s. It’s useless to point out to them that northeastern juries were overturning laws and setting fugitive slaves free long before the Civil War, or that an all-male jury supported Susan B. Anthony’s right to vote, only to be overruled by the judge. If a judge screws up, lefties don’t call for the abolition of judges. But let one jury come in with an unwelcome verdict, as with Diallo, and you’ll hear mumbles that the jury is ? as Michael Lind so memorably put it after the OJ decision, “a barbaric Viking relic”.

At the last minute Barbara said the Villa Hotel is relatively swanky and a T-shirt might not cut it. I grudgingly switched to white shirt , chose the 67 convertible as properly defiant of the auto-safety lobby and headed south from Berkeley. Barbara was right. This was most emphatically a shirt-and-tie, skirt-and-nice-shoes. Justin Raimundo was draped in the sort of gray pinstripe favored by London gents when they want a holiday from blue. But all the same the folks were unmistakeably libertarians, not Democrats or Republicans. Democrats would have been more casual, Republicans far more assertive. From the podium I gazed out at white faces, seeing only two black countenances, one of them unmistakeably that of yet another liberal bete-to-hate, Lenore Fulani.

An excellent crowd! Their amiable hilarity at my sallies reminded me of Goldsmith’s lines in the Deserted Village about the pupils of the country schoolmaster: “Full well they laughed with counterfeited glee / At all his jokes, and many a joke had he.” (How many people have read the whole of that wonderful poem, one of the most savage denunciations of free trade ever written?)

And here now, cleaned up a bit, is what I said.

“Hello to you all.

W.H. Auden, poet, wrote a verse once about a rather mysterious character called Gerald Hamilton who was actually the origin– if any of you have read Christopher Isherwood’s novels-, Mr Norris Changes Trains. And he wrote a little poem which said: “So it’s you that I now raise my glass to,/ although I haven’t the slightest idea / what in God’s name you’re up to,/ or why in God’s name you are here”.

And I feel a little bit like that looking out on your pleasant faces. I’ve been on the left, you know, and I can usually come to an audience and pretty much characterize it. I could save the FBI a tremendous amount of money. They go to extraordinary expense bugging people, going out in the hotel parking lot, and writing down all the license tags. I could say the three old ladies on my left there, they’re all commies, they’ve been commies for sixty years. The people over there carrying a copy of The Militant, they’re Trotskyists. But when the Feds come up after this one, I don’t know what I’m going to say. I’m going to throw in the towel.

People talk a lot about the need for new thinking, and the need for new ideas. But mostly on the left, if you actually raise a new idea, it’s a bit like arriving at a town in the year 1348 with spots on your face saying, “Let me in”.

I remember some years ago I was in Detroit, a town I like a lot, and an anarchist friend of mine said there’s a terrible event on the weekend called “Gunstock”, and I said, “Oh, that sounds interesting, what’s that?” He said, oh, it’s people against the UN, and people who are in favor of guns. I said, “Let’s go and look, let’s go and talk to them, and see what’s going on”. And he said, absolutely not. I said, “I thought you were an anarchist”. So I went to “Gunstock”, and of course it was filled with amiable characters. There was a definite sympathy for guns but not oppressively so. So I wrote a column in The Nation saying actually there’d always been the talk of new ideas and I had a new idea that was that our people should go to gun shows. Nation readers should go to gun shows, carrying copies of The Nation and converse with people. There was an absolute torrent of outrage. People didn’t think that was a good idea at all.

Before this event I got called by a reporter from the Examiner, and he asked what I thought about Buchanan, and he said Buchanan had written the speech for Nixon about going into Cambodia in 1970. Where were you, he asked. And I said, oh, I was outside the American embassy in London-probably standing next to Bill Clinton, who may or may not have been reporting to the FBI. He probably was. Or the CIA.

And the Examiner reporter said, “how would you describe yourself?” And I said “well, how about radical?” He wasn’t totally happy with radical, and I said all right, left, but then the word “left” can mean anything. There was probably a left to the Nazi party in 1935, wanting to wipe out only half the Jews.The word left does not mean much unless it is cashed in real currency, real positions, like being against war on Serbia, for example. And if you’re opposed to that, you really do start looking around for allies and I have noticed you find them increasingly in people like yourselves. People who would conventionally be regarded on the libertarian right or people like Buchanan.

In any intervention there’s a moment when the intervening power is trying to achieve critical mass in its propaganda. The American people, generally, say at first, ‘huh, intervention, no, it doesn’t sound like a very good idea.’ And then you get the usual arsenal of propaganda goes into motion. In Iraq, for example, there was the incubator story. Human rights, of course, was really brought into currency in the era of Jimmy Carter. The idea of the moral mission. Of course, its historical antecedents are much, much longer, but it’s my belief that with that when the liberals began to try to regain the moral confidence that they’d lost in the wake of Vietnam it took them from 1975 to the Carter era, in other words no time at all, to reestablish or to begin the work of reestablishing their moral credentials. We had the rhetoric of human rights. Jimmy Carter pronounced the rhetoric of human rights just as he was mandating the first Argentinean torturers into the creation of the contras. The rhetroric, and the reality. And since that time, we’ve seen the gradual accretion and accumulation of confidence of the intervention in the cause of human rights plus a fairly impressive armory of techniques and accomplices.

Can we unite on the anti-war platform? We have already, in the case of Kossovo for example. But where would you as libertarians want to get off the leftist bus? A leftist says “Capitalism leads to war. Capitalism needs war”. But you libertarians are pro-capitalism, so you presumably have a view of capitalism as a system not inevitably producing or needing war. Lefties have always said capitalism has to maximize its profits and the only way you can maximize profits in the end is by imperial war, which was the old Lenin thesis.

Leftists say that corporations must plunder the earth. Corporations will brook no resistance. Corporations don’t care for interference with their ways, whether it’s by the Zapatistas or by insurgent groups around the world. The minute you have a insurgent group then the capitalists, the corporations say, enough, and whistle up the state to do their bidding. In the early days of the newsletter I coedit, Counterpunch, we ran across a Chase Manhattan bank memo. You know, occasionally you think, ‘God, it’s so tiring trying to find news, let’s just like think of what they would say and then write it and say they said it.’ I’ve never done that, but sometimes they say so exactly what you want them to say, you’re worried that other people will think that you made it up.

So a fellow hired by Chase Manhattan bank wrote a little memo, which had the line, “the Zapatistas must be eliminated”, simple as that. Must be eliminated. It turned out to have been written, that memo, by a professor, a liberal professor, as I recall, from Johns Hopkins.

So, my libertarian friends, at what point do you get off the train? You say, ‘we like corporations, the right for people to associate and form a corporation and issue publicly held stock and maximize profits. This is part and parcel of the economic package we favor.’ Then you have to do battle with leftists, those who say corporate greed will lead to war and waste.

Take Pentagon spending. Is the economy basically underpinned by Pentagon spending, defense spending, and has been ever since 1938-roughly when the New Deal failed, which it did, effectively. Then they had to turn to war spending to bail the whole system out, and ever since then we’ve had Pentagon spending underwriting everything. Keynesianism. Military Keynesianism, at that. Now that’s another bit of left analysis, I wouldn’t go on to tedious length with the various weapons of argument in our arsenal. I’m saying that one could have and should have important debates about why we think wars start.

I was asked by Justin to give a talk here . He cunningly billed my speech as “The psychology of liberal interventionism”, thus removing it from the corporate economic plane to the mentally nutty plane.

A while back I did an interview, actually for a terrific book which I happen to have written myself called “The Golden Age Is In Us”, and I was interviewing Chomsky. It was for a magazine called Grand Street, and the theme we were meant to talk about was models. And so Chomsky and I were very pleased, we thought we were going to talk about models, you know, in the normally Vogue magazine sense of the word. But they said, no, they wanted us to talk about intellectual constructs. Boring. But some of what Chomsky says is interesting. Bear with me, I’ll just read a couple of things he said.

“The same is true of intellectual development and the same is true of moral life. You’re constantly making choices and decisions and judgements. Sometimes you don’t know quite what to do, but over a wide range you know what’s right. And even when you disagree with people, you find shared moral ground on which you can work things out. That’s true on every issue. Take a look at the debate over slavery. It was largely on shared moral ground, and some of the arguments were not so silly. You could understand the slave owner’s arguments. The slave owner says, If you own property, you treat it better than if you rent property, so I’m more humane than you are. We can understand that argument. You have to figure out what’s wrong with it, but there is shared moral ground over a range that goes far beyond any experience. And this can only mean, again short of angels, that it’s growing out of our nature. It means that there must be principles that are embedded in our nature or at the core of our understanding of what a decent human life is, what a proper form of society is and so on”.

Now, he goes on, “the idea that human beings are malleable and that people don’t have an instinctive nature is a very attractive one to people who want to rule, and to control. If you look at the modern intelligentsia over the past century or so, they’re pretty much a managerial class, a secular priesthood. They’ve basically gone in two directions, one is essentially Leninist. Leninism is the ideology of a radical intelligentsia that says we have the right to rule. Alternatively, they have joined the decision-making sector of state capitalist society as managers in the political economic and ideological institutions. The ideologies are very similar”, says Chomsky who went on,”I’ve sometimes compared Robert McNamara to Lenin, and you have only to change a few words for them to say virtually the same thing. That’s why people can jump so quickly from being loyal communists to celebrating America, to take the Partisan Review’s famous phrase back in the early Cold War.” “All of this,” Chomsky concludes, “was predicted by the anarchist, Bakunin, probably the only prediction in the social sciences that’s ever come true.”

Now that is a very provocative and stimulating set of propositions .This idea of the managerial impulse, the technocratic impulse. What I’m sure is attractive about the idea of the left-right opposition to war is the idea of a shared moral outlook, which of course then has to confront or perhaps gloss over temporarily economic and political differences. And I think the shared moral outlook should extend beyond war into other very, important areas. I might just suggest a few. To me they are enormously important.

If you’re paralleling your opposition to intervention, to the liberal humanitarian interventionist spirit at home, what are you talking really about? You’re talking about defense of liberty. What we are seeing at the moment is the rise of the prosecutorial state, a ferocious onslaught on substantive liberty, almost everywhere you look. Its reached epidemic crisis and emergency proportions.

You can look across the country at one example after another of the cops, of the prosecutorial system being out of control. Lying by cops in court is endemic. Lying and snitching, that’s the underpinnings of law enforcement. And it is reaching, I think, a major crisis. And in this crisis constitutional protections are going by the board.

The fourth amendment is gone. Absolutely gone. In a car you have no rights whatsoever. They can do anything they want. The sixth amendment is gone. Now your kids are driving down the road to San Francisco. No rights in a car, right away. A cop sees them, thinks they’re driving a V.W. with a hip hop beret on or something like that, or a tail pipe is out, they’ll stop them, it’s a pretext stop. They’re got no protections. And then you’ve got, of course, all this driving while black stuff, crowding in on top of that. Now you get into court, you’re confronted with cops perjuring themselves and jailhouse snitches saying you confessed all to them in your cell. You’ve got people told to snitch or they’ll face 20 years, you’ve got the mandatory sentences, you’ve got the crack disproportion, a 100 times disproportion in sentencing on powder cocaine and crack cocaine. Take every instrumentality and abuse of the drug war, and there’s something on which everybody in this room could unite.

How many times have we heard a real debate thus far this year? On basic issues of liberty and freedom? Not one bleat, except, I hope, from Mr. Buchanan when he gets going. And Ralph Nader, hopefully when he gets going.

Now take the environment, and what we’ve seen over the last 20 years since that great Green president Richard Nixon brought in EPA, is a steady conversion of the militant organizing defense of nature, defense of open space, defense of things we all like, into a collusive operation between extremely rich NGOs and the government. Look at the big environmental organizations. Totally undemocratic, socked in with major foundations like the Pew Foundation, like Rockefeller, like Ford, like the MacArthur Foundation, whose processes are secretive, the politics of manipulation, and ultimately coercive regulation which causes huge offense to people who should be the allies of the Greens. I’m talking about small ranches, I’m talking about small farmers who see themselves being destroyed by big government.

So, in area after area, these things have to be argued through in an amiable and pleasant and energetic way.

I think the old categories are gone. I see no virtue to them. I see Bernie Sanders listed as an Independent Socialist in the U.S. Congress. I see what Bernie Sanders has supported, starting with the war in Kosovo. And then I see Ron Paul, on the other hand, writing stuff against war which could have been written by Tom Hayden in 1967. I say what is the point of fooling around with the old categories? Bernie Sanders says he’s an economic populist. What’s he trying to do? He’s trying to export the nuclear waste of the northeastern states to a poor Spanish community in Texas. And that effort was stopped by George W., figure that one out. Of course George W. had a Democratic opponent in Texas who was making a stink about it, so he wanted to outflank him, that’s why he did it.

We live in exciting times. There’s no question about it. It’s been a long process. I think I met my first libertarians back in the early 70s. I’ve seen these shivering of the old categories go by the board over this period.

I don’t know how much will happen this year. These are periods of action, periods of creative effort, We’ve got two things to do: one is to cement our basic capacities for alert resistance at the next specter of war, have our troops ready, our messages ready, have our propaganda ready, have our alliances and our coalitions prepared.

And beyond that, through functions like this and the stuff that Justin’s been organizing, and hopefully something from the left, we have to reforge our ideas and hopes, based on those simple ideas of Chomsky or the French Enlightenment and move forward from there.

Thank you.”

Hardly had I stopped before a Serb came up and said angrily that I wrecked everything I’d said with my kindly allusion to the French Enlightenment. He spat out the word Rousseau with the sort of indignation I imagine he attaches to the name of Wesley Clark. I was trying to defend myself but then was sidetracked by the effort of exchanging comradely greetings not only with Lenore Fulani but of Ron Paul. Raimundo lived up to his promise. It was fun. And it was fun later that afternoon to listen to Fulani give an interesting address on the decline of the anti war left and to Raimundo talk about the 30s isolationists. Alas, the Libertarians’ presidential candidate, Harry Browne, was repetitive and a bit of a bore.

Driving back to Berkeley with $300 in cash in my pocket, I mentally toasted antiwar.com. Alas, not many leftists will ever want to have much to do with them.

At the end of April we’ll have arrived at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, when the last fugitives clambered into helicopters at the US Embassy compound in Saigon. Gays are planning a big march on Washington for April 30 but not, at least officially, to celebrate that setback for US imperialism. Nonetheless, I hope some speaker in Washington that day will note that the Stonewall riot and gay liberation drew inspiration and fury from the antiwar movement, as did women’s liberation. Environmentalism too.

For years the antiwar left was told to be embarrassed about the sixties, put through re-education rites designed to elicit the confession that “excesses” were committed, mistakes made. Of course mistakes were made, starting with the failure to stop the war eight years earlier, in l967. We misread the larger calendar. After Tet, after the May?June events in Paris, we thought revolution was around the corner. The Tet Offensive of 1968 remains one of the great moments of the twentieth century, even though one can see in retrospect that General Giap’s desperate throw signaled the fact that the Americans had indeed been successful in exterminating-the appropriate word, no?-the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. We make mistakes all the time, again and again, however much we try to “draw the correct lessons.” Big deal. History isn’t like a bus, conveniently carrying a destination sign above the windshield. Every time I go to political gathering on the left, it’s filled with people, self included, who have made mistakes about the way history was headed, about the vulnerability of capitalism, but who were on the right track all the same. The most mistaken people of all are those so frightened of making mistakes they end up missing the right bus when it finally comes round the corner.

A phrase I hate is that tag from the Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci leftists love to quote, “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.” What’s so wrong with optimism of the intellect, as well as of will, to get one out of bed in the morning? OK, qualified (ITALS) optimism. There’s no sense in getting totally carried away. The British leftist Perry Anderson, has just written an editorial in New Left Review marking that journal’s “re-launch” as it enters its fifth decade. “The only starting-point for a realistic Left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat, Anderson writes with gloomy relish.”For the first time since the Reformation there are no longer any significant oppositions-that is, systematic rival outlooks-within the thought-world of the West; and scarcely any on a world scale either.”

Anderson notes that amid this historical defeat leftists can opt for “accommodation,” “consolation” (search for silver linings, favored occupation of present writer) or “uncompromising realism” (NLR’s official position). But he does add in a footnote that there is another possible reaction, “namely, resignation-in other words, a lucid recognition of the nature and triumph of the system, without either adaptation or self-deception, but also without any belief in the chance of an alternative to it.”

As I read these dour lines by my old friend (I am on NLR’s editorial committee) came news over the radio of a tree-sit in a section of the Headwaters redwood forest, in Humboldt County, northern California. A young woman called Firebird, fresh up from San Francisco, was at time of writing, tree-sitting forty feet up in the air. She’d fixed up a rope with a noose round her neck, with the other end tied to a gate on the ground. If the loggers or their allies launch an attack, Firebird was in imminent danger of being hanged. No accommodation, consolation, resignation or uncompromising realism here.

Firebird has optimism of the will and optimism of the intellect. I don’t think many of us, back in the sixties, would have taken optimism that far. Hurrah for the Vietnamese war of liberation, hurrah for the antiwar movement, hurrah for Firebird. Hurrah for others like Firebird who battled the WTO to a standstill in Seattle last fall, and for a reprise in Washington this month, where the Ruckus Society, Direct Action Network and other insurgents have planned demonstrations and civil disobedience to shut down the IMF and World Bank meeting. Hurrah for optimism! CP


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.