Dialogue of the Deaf: Debating Ted Koppel on Communism

Photograph Source: Timbrauhn – CC BY 2.0

May Day, 1990. My telephone rang and a voice asked if I would be prepared to go on Ted Koppel’s Nightline that same evening. I asked what the theme was going to be. The voice, belonging to the Koppel show’s Tracy Day, said that Koppel and his guests would be addressing the theme, “Is Communism Dead?”

By late afternoon in Los Angeles, Tracy called from New York. I’d be on with Angela Davis and Melor Sturua, a Russian columnist for Izvestia on leave at the Carnegie Endowment.

I drove east across Los Angeles toward the ABC studio. At the studio they make me up and sit me down. The drill with Koppel is that you look into a camera and listen to your earphone. You can’t see what’s happening on the show. You have to keep looking at the camera because you don’t know when Koppel, the only person who can see all the people on the show, who controls everything, is going to call on you. Swivel your eyes away from the camera and millions will think you’ve got something to hide.

Suddenly we’re off. I can hear the soundtrack of some footage, of people hammering down the Wall, denouncing communism. Then I hear Koppel saying, “…the state of distress in which communism finds itself…seems easier for some Soviets to accept than…for left-wingers like Alexander Cockburn or leaders of the American Communist Party like Angela Davis.”

So it’s a set-up: the viewers have been invited to watch scenes of collapsing communism, then here’s Koppel cutting to the last dinosaurs, clanking into the studio dragging their ball and chain of dead ideas.

This was the trend of the show. Koppel got increasingly testy. Why, he asked, did I keep bringing up capitalism? We were meant to be talking about communism. It became a dialogue of the deaf. I said that in order to understand why millions of people around the world are still fired with radical ideas you have to understand that if actually existing communism was and is abhorrent to some, actually existing capitalism is abhorrent to others.

I was going to add that on the same May Day that Russian workers were booing the Soviet leaders, workers in the Philippines were demonstrating against the regime and the US bases, and in South Korea striking shipyard workers were still battling police.

No time for this though. By now Koppel was saying that I was putting words into his mouth and Professor Davis was trying to explain that capitalism was not working too well for black people here in the US and Sturua was saying that Karl Marx was right when he said that theory was gray but green was tree of life. From the corner of my eye I saw a copy of Business Week featuring on its cover the best-paid executive of 1989, Craig McCaw, weighing in with $53.9 million. Why didn’t I just hold it up to the camera and say that against salaries like this, how could the ideals of socialism ever die?

But it was all over. I didn’t even have time to tell Sturua that Goethe not Marx said the thing about the green tree. At least he had Marx associated with living things.

This episode is excerpted from The Golden Age is In Us.

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