Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Thirty Years War (1962)

Book Review from the February 1962 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Thirty Years War by C.V. Wedgwood, Pelican Books, 5s.

The Thirty Years War was in fact a series of conflicts lasting from 1618 to 1648, which devastated vast areas of Germany. Fought with a savagery that has seldom been equalled even in this bloody 20th century, the war has held the imagination of succeeding generations, whilst other and vaster conflicts have sometimes been forgotten.

Primarily a war between the States that comprised the disintegrating Holy Roman Empire, it was part of a greater conflict between the developing nations of Europe—and it involved most of the Continent and spilled over into the New World. Spain and France, England and Holland, Sweden and Russia, the permutations were endless, but the result was always the same—misery for the mass of the people.

Germany was then the main highway of Europe. As the author states:
Germany was a network of roads knotted together at intersections by the great clearing-houses at Frankfort on the Main, Frankfort on the Oder, Leipzig, Nuremburg, Augsburg. West Indian sugar reached Europe from the refineries of Hamburg, Russian furs from Leipzig, salt fish from Lübeck, oriental silk and spices from Venice through Augsburg, copper, salt, iron sandstone, corn were carried down the Elbe and Oder, Spanish and English wool woven in Germany competed with Spanish and English cloth in the European market, and the wood that built the Armada was shipped from Danzig.
The cities of Germany were more thickly spread than those in any other area of Europe. Rich, a tempting prize to neighbouring ruling classes, its semi-independent states and free cities were loosely held together in the largely unworkable Empire. In the North, along the shores of the Baltic stretched the wealthy trading cities of the Hanseatic League. Once powerful and feared by their competitors, they were in decline as the opening up of the New World swung the centre of trade to the Atlantic seaboard. Sweden, Holland and Denmark better placed geographically, fought a cut-throat battle to capture this trade.

The Holy Roman Emperor was elected to office by an Electoral College consisting of seven Princes and Cardinals, and was usually a powerful landowner with vast possessions outside the Empire. It was with private troops from these possessions that he imposed what authority he could on the states within the Empire. For over a century the Imperial office had been held by members of the Hapsburg family. Their capital at Vienna was to become the centre of the Austrian Empire which dominated Central Europe centuries later.

The Reformation had split the Empire, and an uneasy settlement in the year 1555 had given to each state the religion of its ruling house. Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists each persecuted the dissenting elements within their borders, Surrounded by powerful and grasping neighbours, and lacking a strong central government, Germany went into an economic decline.
Meanwhile German credit declined and dangerous speculation led to the collapse of one great banking house after another. The firm of Manlich of Augsburg failed as early as 1573, that of Haug a year later; the larger business of the Welsers collapsed in 1614 and the world-famed family of Fugger itself could not work out the storm but went into liquidation shortly after.
To the west Spain and Holland, who had been locked in a struggle since 1572, had signed a truce that was nearing its end. Both were manoeuvering for positions from which they could renew the conflict. France was beginning to challenge the power of Spain, and across the channel a newly united Britain was on the brink of the great surge forward that was to make it the dominant capitalist power. In the south-east the Ottoman Empire was pushing on to the gates of Vienna itself. Sweden to the north, with its ultra-modern and fanatical army, looked into Germany and Russia for room to expand. This was the explosive situation in Europe when in 1618 the "key" state of Bohemia rose in revolt against the Emperor and blew the lid off the witches' cauldron.

The Thirty Years War was first published in 1938, when Germany occupied the same position in the popular mind that Russia holds today. In some ways the book reflects the attitudes of that period. Miss Wedgwood traces, with admirable clarity, the progress of a conflict as complicated in its intrigues as it was sickening in its brutality. The war at its very beginning assumed an international character, when Spanish troops moved up to support the Imperial Forces, and a large mercenary army from Turin arrived to back up the hard-pressed Bohemians. In turn, France, Denmark and Sweden entered the struggle, and Germany became the battlefield and training ground of foreign armies—a picture so familiar to us in the 20th century.

The author tells us a lot about human suffering, which was indeed appalling. To the usual horrors of war, the murder, torture and rape of civilian populations as ruffianly mercenaries and the fanatical troops of Sweden and Spain fought over the land, was added a new horror—that of systematic pillage. Armies lived off the land for years. As one area was reduced to a desert, they moved on to new territory. No attempt was made to provision armies and the most successful general was the one who could organise pillage most effectively.

The crowning horror was the Sack of Magdeburg in 1631. This rich trading city on the Elbe fell to Tilly's half-crazed soldiery. Its inhabitants were butchered without mercy, and fire reduced the town to a blackened ruin. Whether this was a deliberate act of terror by the Catholic authorities or the action of troops out of control has long been debated. But design or accident, the result was the same to the wretched inhabitants. The news of the outrage inflamed the Protestant world to further acts of counter-violence. Years afterwards, Imperial prisoners asking for quarter were shot down with the cry of "Magdeburg quarter."

This is a book that can be read with profit by all who wish to increase their knowledge of the world in which Modern Europe, the Europe of capitalism arose.
Les Dale 

Tenners for fivers (1990)

From the April 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

The privatisation of the water industry has seen "tens of thousands" of individual buyers cashing in by selling their shares at the first opportunity. This merely repeats what has happened in every previous privitisation. When British Gas was sold off in 1986 there were 4.2 million shareholders. That figure is now 2.6 million. Of the original 650,000 who bought British Steel shares in 1988 only 400,000 remained six months later. British Airways can boast the most spectacular fall—from 1.2 million shareholders down to just 420,000 in only months. And it's the same story with British Telecom, TSB, Jaguar and the others.
Research shows that between one quarter and one third of all investors in previous privitisation issue have pulled out within the first six weeks. (Guardian, 20 December, 1989.)
Why, then, do these sellers buy shares in the first place? Simply to make some easy money. After all, the government is so anxious to make sure that each flotation doesn't flop that it sells the shares well below market value and this has been well described as "selling tenners for fivers". Indeed, buying shares in privatised industries is such a sure money maker that people withdraw savings from building societies and even borrow to buy the shares, and this, more than any belief in the "enterprise culture", is what accounts for the growth in share buying.

Of course the government has other reasons for selling privatised industries cheaply. One is the genuine desire to get government out of business. Another is to raise cash to give away in tax cuts before general elections, but the most important is the wish to create "popular capitalism" in which a shareholding population will identify with capitalism and, especially when they have shares in the company they work for, never go on strike for higher pay in case this harms their dividends. This dotty idea ignores the fact the workers depend primarily for their living in their wages and salaries which far outweigh any puny dividends they may get. Anyway, owning shares in the company which employs them didn't stop workers in British Telecom and Jaguar from striking for higher pay.

The myth of "a nation of shareholders" isn't new. Back in the mid 1800s The Economist claimed: "Everybody is in stocks now. Needy clerks, poor tradesmen's apprentices, discharged serving men and bankrupts—all have entered the ranks of the great moneyed interests." This drivel is quoted by Colin Chapman in his excellent book, How the Stock Exchange Works. And during the boom in the American stock market in the 1920s which led to the Wall Street crash the popular the popular notion was that everyone, from housewives to waiters, was "in the market". J. K. Galbraith exposed this nonsense in his book, The Great Crash 1929:
Then as now, to the great majority of workers, farmers, white-collar workers, indeed to the great majority of all Americans, the stock market . . . was in every respect as remote from life as the casino at Monte Carlo.
Supporters of popular capitalism argue that buying shares could become a national pastime if it were made easier by having American-style "share shops" in every high street much as there are betting shops now, but these share shops haven't stopped the decline of individual share owning in America.

Can Britain ever become a nation of small investors? First of all, dealers in the City don't want it because it produces a vast increase in unprofitable, small transactions and try to discourage the small fry by charging them double commission on deals. meanwhile the dealers have halved charges for the big institutional investors which own two thirds of all company shares. However, the main obstacle is that most people couldn't buy shares even if they wanted to. Peter Morris of MORI, the research and opinion poll agency, confirms that at least half the public are excluded from buying because they have no cash (Colin Chapman).

Of course there will be more privitisations in the future and if the government continues to sell the shares cheaply then many of those who buy will take the money and run but, like every other scheme for soothing working class discontent within capitalism and eliminating the class struggle, it hasn't got a hope.
Vic Vanni



What We Mean By Revolution (1927)

Editorial from the April 1927 issue of the Socialist Standard

When we say that Socialism means revolution and that we are revolutionaries, experience leads us to expect that we shall be misunderstood unless we take care to make our meaning plain. On the one side it will be assumed that we are advocating violence and anti-democratic methods, and on the other side, as we are frequently told by those who do advocate these things, our refusal to do the same stamps us as non-revolutionary. What then do we mean by revolution?

Our aim is to abolish working-class poverty and subjection to the owners of the means of living. We see that the workers are poor as a class because as a class they do not own the machinery of wealth production and distribution. Those who live by owning are living at our expense, and are effectively hindering the most economical use and development of the productive forces. Nothing will serve to secure the desired end, except the abolition of the private ownership of these instruments. But private property is the corner-stone of the existing laws and the very foundation of capitalist society. So that, in order to abolish private ownership, we, the workers, must obtain control of society. Revolution consists in using the power we shall then possess, for the purpose of destroying the present property rights and refashioning society on the basis of common ownership. As our aim, Socialism, can be accomplished only by this revolutionary change, we are revolutionaries and our method is revolution.

It will be observed that no mention has been made of the use of violence. We need to control society but we believe that this can be done through the existing political machinery. We believe that the working class can, when they so desire, use constitutional methods to make themselves masters of the situation, and can use their power for the purpose of instituting socialism just as easily as they use it at present for the purpose of returning the Conservative or the Labour Party, whose only difference is an inability to agree as to the best method of administering capitalism. The workers are the overwhelming majority of the electors and can, when they wish, use their votes for Socialism.

We do not intend to use violent methods because under existing conditions in this country they would not help us to obtain socialism. The presence or absence of rioting and bloodshed is merely incidental. A revolutionary end, that is, the displacement of a ruling class, may take place in an orderly fashion, but it is none the less revolutionary for that. The Socialist differs from the supporter of the Labour Party in this respect that the latter seeks to gain control of the political machinery for non-revolutionary purposes, while we are aiming at gaining control in an equally constitutional way, but for a fundamentally different object.

And just as revolution may be free any show of violence, so violence may frequently does occur where is no revolutionary object being sought and resisted.

The pre-war suffrage agitation was marked by the completest disregard for laws and property rights, but its aim was in no sense revolutionary. Strikes and lock-outs are often accompanied by conflicts with the police and even with the armed forces, without there ever being at issue more than some trifling question of wages or hours which could be settled by the employers entirely giving way, without in the least endangering their position as a privileged class.

We avoid these things deliberately, not only because they are chiefly a source of danger to those who practice them, but also because they would mislead the workers and obscure our larger aim. If we preach violence we should first have to devote time to explaining that violence cannot gain power for a minority and a majority can gain power without it. Secondly, we would be allowing our opponents the opportunity of side-tracking the main issue. If we advocated unconstitutional methods our energies would be taken up in debating the issue of constitutionalism, whereas we want to preach Socialism.

The Socialist Movement to-day is weak for one reason only, that is because of the small number of Socialists. There is no lack of believers in violence and opponents of it and no lack of friends and enemies of constitutionalism. If we added unnecessary confusion to the Socialist case by delving into these other less-important controversial questions, we might add to the numbers of muddled hangers-on to the fringes of the Socialist Movement, but that is not our aim. How true this is can be seen from the recent experiences of the Communist Party. Forgetting that their prime object should have been the  furtherance of Communist propaganda, their energies have been absorbed in fruitless endeavours to combat the misrepresentation to which they were subjected immediately they associated themselves with illegal and anti-constitutionalist activities. Had they stuck to the essentials of their case they could have argued it on its merits. As it is, their case has almost disappeared under a mass of almost irrelevant charge and counter-charge relating to side issues.

Everyone has heard of the Communist Party through the capitalist press, but hardly anyone now knows what the party really stands for. It is opposed by people who learn what Communism is from the Daily Mail, and it is supported by others who are not much better informed on the points that really matter.

We then are revolutionaries because Socialism involves a revolutionary transformation. Violence cannot assist us, and we therefore reject violence.

The great need of the moment is more Socialists. Socialist can be won only by the steady propagation of Socialist knowledge. This is dull, plodding work, but it is the only way. In carrying on that work in spite of all temptation to aim at cheap and fleeting popularity , we are performing a task which is an indispensable prelude to revolutionary action.

MAY DAY REVERIE (1956)

A Short Story from the May 1956 issue of the Socialist Standard

An old man sat watching the fire burn away. His scarred features and heaving chest marked him as one of many to be found in the coal-field—men who had sold their strength and virility whilst it lasted and now, having nothing to sell, were on their way out.

Another May Day was passing—quietly—almost unnoticed except for old timers' like Evan Hughes. May Day was, after all, the traditional day of rejoicing, bringing once more the promise of warmth, plenty and a new life to the peasant folk of early times and Evan was a descendent of such people. Over a century ago they had come flocking into the valleys with the soil of the fields clinging to their trousers. Freed from the shackles of the Squire and Landlord, they took upon themselves, willingly, the fetters of their new masters the Coal Owners. Even had grown up in the valley. He had seen the coal barons, like the feudal lords of an earlier age, push out their frontiers; the lengthening grey ribbons of industrial barracks that served as houses; the black pyramids of slag that grew higher as the newly formed conscripts of Capital hewed their way into the virgin coal seams.

The valleys were a hard training ground, and it is not surprising that hard, tough men emerged. Yet, with it all, gentleness and kindness prevailed everywhere and the periods of distress and suffering were shared in common. It is little wonder that from these valleys poured men who were masters in the world's boxing rings, whose oratory from platform and pulpit thrilled the nation; whose singing lifted the heart. Yes, there were giants in the old times. Men there were who had led their comrades in fight after fight for "a living wage," "work or maintenance," and a hundred and one things that Evan had now forgotten and his grandchildren had never heard of. It had all passed, and now, May Day was fading with the light. The clock ticked on relentlessly in a silence broken only by a cinder falling from the burnt-out fire. The old man in the chair seemed to portray the futility of it all.

Evan, and those like him, are passing away. What can we say for them? That they were sincere fighters for a better world there can be no doubt. We charge them with no crime. They were, after all, the victims in a tragedy—unaware of the nature of the society they sought to better. They were often caught in the moment of the grand oration, duped by the opportunist slogan. Responsive with a dog-like devotion to their leaders whom they sent to Parliament, where in time they achieved the cherished but empty dream of Nationalization. And now?

The story continues, though Evan is no longer interested. The ranks of the "old contemptibles" are rapidly thinning, leaving the present generation to carry on the struggle for the life that is as far away as ever. There are today no shortages of leaders, the slogans continue to pour out, the orations are to hand for the occasion. The workers in the valleys and everywhere else on May Day, 1956, still find themselves spinning around the fulcrum of Capitalism, dancing to the latest tune their masters care to play. Is it any wonder they are dizzy?
W. Brain

Out of Step With the Left and Right (2012)

From the September 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard
Americas political landscape is drearier now that two cantankerous radicals are gone.


Late July saw the deaths of Alexander Cockburn (b. 1941), a radical muckraking journalist, and Gore Vidal (b. 1925), historical novelist, essayist, playwright, and two-time political candidate. Each was something of a one-man political tendency –viewing himself as of the Left, as it’s called, but willing to question leftist assumptions and engage with those inhabiting that other imaginary political zone, the Right.



To the purebred liberal or conservative, with feet planted squarely on the either bank of the Mainstream, the politics of Cockburn and of Vidal could seem irresponsible, irrelevant, or just irritating. Loyal Democrats never forgave either man for supporting Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential election.



The liberal magazine American Prospect still nurses that wound; its editor Harold Meyerson bluntly titled his Cockburn obituary, “The Man Who Hated Liberals,” writing that, “contempt for liberals and social democrats was a hallmark of Cockburn’s work . . . it informed, if that’s the word, [his] attacks on Al Gore and his paeans to Ralph Nader during the 2000 presidential campaign.”



The (more or less) liberal New Republic gave Vidal an even rougher going-over in its obituary, “Where Have All Our Racist Aristocrats Gone?” –and reminded readers of old Vidal feuds related to his criticism of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians; a position he shared with Cockburn, and which earned them the label of “anti-Semite.”



Conservative magazines were not especially sad to see them go, either; The Weekly Standard, begins its obituary of Vidal with guns ablaze: “The most puzzling thing about the career of Gore Vidal, who went toes-up last week at 86, was the reverence in which he was held by people who might have known better.”



Yet there were also those on the Right who were fond of Vidal or Cockburn: some liked how they regularly laid into liberals, while a few thought that behind the radicalism was a true conservative yearning to breathe free. “Libertarians” (anarcho-capitalists), in particular, viewed Vidal and Cockburn as kindred souls. Justin Raimondo, founder of the libertarian website, antiwar.com, praised Vidal as the “last Jeffersonian”. And he questioned the use of the term, “radical leftist” in obituaries of Cockburn (who was briefly an antiwar.com columnist): “He was radical, all right, but as for the ‘leftist’–I have my doubts”; describing him instead as “a paleo-radical who had survived long enough to be considered a reactionary.”



The obituaries of Vidal and Cockburn written by the “radical leftists” themselves were full of praise and a few criticisms. The International Socialist Organization hailed Vidal as an “uncompromising critic of America’s rulers” on its website (socialistworker.org), while noting that his “politics were not without their flaws.” The same organization praised Cockburn as a “modern-day muckraker” who “never stopped speaking truth to power,” but proceeded to list a number of “points where we . . . disagreed with him, sometimes very sharply.” Indeed, Cockburn deviated sharply from the radical Left a final time just weeks before his own death when he pronounced the Occupy movement dead of its own incoherence.



This talent Vidal and Cockburn had for winning friends and enemies across the Left and Right divide struck many as contrarianism in the style of Christopher Hitchens, their erstwhile comrade. But their politics were more radical and coherent than Hitchens’s ever were, even in his lefty prime, and their apparent “contrarianism” was more a result of sticking to their guns than seeking attention for its own sake (although both relished a good fight).

The populist and the radical
Vidal and Cockburn were not political clones by any means. A difference between them in background and generation clearly affected their politics. Vidal’s starting point was the Democratic Party at the tail-end of the New Deal, while Cockburn came out of the radicalism of the 1960s. One noteworthy similarity is that the politics and personal ambitions of each were strongly influenced by a close family member.

For Gore Vidal, the influential figure was his grandfather Thomas Gore, a Democratic Party senator for the state of Oklahoma (1907–21; 1931–37). As a child, Vidal spent countless hours reading to his blind grandfather from weighty tomes on bimetallism and constitutional history or from The Congressional Record. Through this political education Vidal assimilated the political outlook of Senator Gore, which had been shaped by his participation in the short-lived People’s Party (‘Populist’) movement of the 1890s. This had arisen out of southern farmers’ anger against the power of northern railway monopolies and banks. Even after joining other Populists in ‘fusing’ with the Democratic Party, Gore continued to oppose banking and railroad interests, and he voted against the party leadership at crucial times (to his own political detriment): he opposed Woodrow Wilson’s call for involvement in World War I and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation. On top of this, he was an unabashed atheist. But whether Thomas Gore belongs on the Left or Right is anyone’s guess. The senator’s fiscal conservatism would win cheers from today’s Tea Partiers, certainly, but his blaspheming the Holy Trinity (war, banks, and God) would sound like ‘commie-talk’ to the ears of the Republican and Democratic faithful.
By the late 1940s, when Gore Vidal gained fame as a novelist, there were not many populists in the mould of Thomas Gore left in the Democratic Party. But Vidal remained a Democrat, even running for Congress on the Democratic ticket in 1960 (on a platform of taxing the rich) and in a Senate primary in 1982. Vidal did not simply inherit his grandfather’s beliefs: he was no foe of the welfare state, as was clear from his campaigns. Yet the general influence of the old Populist politics is unmistakable. And in interviews Vidal often described his politics as Populist, bewildering anyone who knew his patrician ways better than his politics.
In the early 1970s, Vidal co-chaired the anti-war ‘People’s Party’ coalition, and was already saying around the time that, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party . . . and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.” In subsequent years, Vidal in his political activity and writing was consistently opposed to American militarism and empire-building. The gradual transformation of the United States from a “republic into an empire,” as Vidal puts it (as do libertarians), was the central theme of his Narratives of Empire series of historical novels, for which he is best known as a writer.
For Alexander Cockburn, the influential family member was his father, Claud, a radical journalist who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s and stayed with that outfit until 1947. At the time of Alexander’s birth, Claud was editing a muckraking newsletter called The Week, described by Graham Greene as the intellectual inspiration for Private Eye, which Cockburn also edited, in the 1960s.
Cockburn idolized and modeled himself after his father, whom he called the “greatest radical journalist of his age”; this influence determined his decision to enter journalism. In the 1960s, Cockburn worked for the New Statesmen and other publications in London, where he was also on the editorial board of New Left Review.  In 1972 he moved to the United States, where he wrote first for the Village Voice and later for dozens of other publications, including The Nation, for which he wrote his long-running column, Beat the Devil (named after Claud Cockburn’s pulp novel of the same title). And in the 1990s, he also started to edit the muckraking newsletter (and website) CounterPunch.

Alexander Cockburn tended to make light of Claud’s rather long time spent in a Communist Party, usually by recounting one of the humorous anecdotes his father had told him of that experience. He recalled, for instance, how his father once encountered a jargon-riddled passage in the Daily Worker: “The lower organs of the Party must make even greater efforts to penetrate the more backward parts of the proletariat,”and worried it “would be construed by the masses as a dirty joke.” Such anecdotes seemed intended to underscore how Claud was a most unorthodox Communist –and, of course, to get a laugh.
But the joke falls a bit flat when we see how the dead weight of dear old Dad’s “Old Left” dogma held Alexander back, at times. For all his exposure to Sixties radicalism, there was a soft spot in Cockburn’s heart for Communists and he quoted Lenin enthusiastically right up to the end. Worst of all, he mistook some of the state-capitalist countries for post-capitalist ones, an assumption that was fatal to his ability to understand the meaning of socialism. Cockburn’s criticism of the Occupy movement just before he died applies equally to his own reform-focused politics:
“There also seemed to be a serious level of political naivety about the shape of the society they were seeking to change. They definitely thought that it could be reshaped –the notion that the whole system was unfixable did not get much of a hearing.”
And often the twain shall meet
Despite their different political backgrounds, there are key positions that Cockburn and Vidal held in common. First, both opposed US militarism and its wars around the globe. They also denounced the erosion of civil liberties and authoritarian abuses of the state. The third principle that animated their politics was an opposition to ‘corporate power’ –particularly the power of large banks.
All three of these positions would seem to merit the Leftist label for them, but a second thought (and the memory of Senator Gore!) might even raise some doubts on this score.
Anti-war would seem a Lefty view, certainly, but the ‘isolationists’ were associated with the Right. And in the eyes of Leftists, there have always been good and bad wars. Opposing corporations would seem a sure mark in the Left column, again. But the old Populist’s opposition to banking and railroad giants reflected the interests of agricultural capital. And today as well, opposing big business can be the ideology of the small-fry capitalist struggling to become a big shot. Even in the case of civil liberties, one could point to how Leftists often lead the charge against ‘hate speech’ and call on the state to limit the expression of ‘dangerous ideas.’
The dividing line between Left and Right on a specific issue seems clear at a given time, but it is always shifting over time, revealing the essential meaningless of the two categories. None of that seems to matter much to reformist activists on both sides who judge your politics according to what positions are taken on the ‘hot-button’ issues of today, adding up the checks in the Left and Right columns to calculate your political score.
The positions Vidal and Cockburn took on some of the issues of the day certainly had Leftists scratching their heads in confusion, or their chins in suspicion.
One example was their indifference (but not outright opposition) to gay marriage, which both found a boring issue. Vidal’s position came as a surprise to many, for he was an open “homosexualist” (with prickly precision he thought the term ‘homosexual’ should only describe the act and not define the person), had fought against homophobia long before it was a popular cause and lived for decades with his partner Howard Austen. The reasons Vidal and Cockburn gave for their position were the exact opposite of the right-wing view that gay marriage “threatened the sanctity of marriage.” Vidal quipped that “heterosexual marriage is such a disaster, why would anyone want to imitate it?” And Cockburn said it would make more sense to “figure out how to relieve heterosexuals of the outdated shackles of matrimony,” while ridiculing the Right’s notion gay marriage would, “bring the whole edifice of Western civilization crashing down.”Even though their position on gay marriage is glibly expressed, and its practical consequences for individuals are dubious, it was nonetheless based on a radical view of marriage (in general) as a reactionary institution.
Another jaw-dropper for Leftists was Cockburn’s position on global warming, namely his belief that, “There is still zero empirical evidence that anthropogenic production of carbon dioxide is making any measurable contribution to the world's present warming trend.” This is of course a scientific issue, not a narrow political one and must be judged on scientific grounds. But however cranky his science, Cockburn’s political reasoning on the issue is, again, that of a radical. He described the “turn to climate catastrophism” as “tied to the decline of the left’s optimistic vision of altering the economic nature of things through a political programme” and its belief that the “emergency response [to a catastrophe] will lead to positive developments in terms of social and environmental justice”; whereas Cockburn believed “environmental catastrophism will - in fact it already has - play into the hands of the sinister-as-always corporate interests.”
Even at their cantankerous worst, which was when their wit was often best, Vidal and Cockburn held positions that were arrived at through independent thought. But in reformist politics the reasons a person gives for a position matters less than the political company he or she seems to keep in holding it.
Not radical enough?
Why is a question the media are trained to shy away from. Too dangerous. One might actually learn why something had happened and become thoughtful.”(Gore Vidal)

The willingness to ask that question, even when it might lead in an uncomfortable direction, brought Vidal and Cockburn into conflict with Leftists, not to mention liberals and conservatives. That is not to imply that they always arrived at a convincing answer. (Vidal in particular was far too willing to flirt with conspiracy theories during his last decade.) In posing dangerous questions, though, they shook many out of their complacency; in their writings, one senses an independent, probing mind in action.
Yet despite this fearless questioning of assumptions, I don’t think either asked enough (or good enough) “why questions.” Even when they grasped why something had happened, they did not necessarily “become thoughtful”enough to recognize why similar somethings kept happening, over and over. Not why this or that war occurred, for example, but why war itself continually springs from the soil of capitalism, or why economic crises reoccur ever few years. Instead, they were too prone, as they tirelessly raked through the muck of American society, to pin the blame on rotten individuals or a public too apathetic to stop them.
By not asking the second, third, or fourth “why” question”so as to dig down to the root of a problem, Vidal and Cockburn were not as radical, in the literal sense of the word, as they should have been; they remained reformists who only sought to reshape capitalism. Vidal and Cockburn could have learned useful things from genuine socialists about questioning their own political and social assumptions.
But socialists have much to learn from Vidal and Cockburn, too. Their way of expressing unpopular or controversial ideas with verve and confidence is worth emulating; as is their ability to write in jargon-free English for a wide audience without spoon-feeding the content or sacrificing wit; and having skin thick enough to weather criticism, and a pen sharp enough to pierce it. All of these qualities are useful to ‘contrarians’ propagating the still unpopular idea that capitalism must be replaced by a new form of society.
Michael Schauerte