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The Sixties [May 1998]

For a while it looked as though the Sixties had been captured by the enemy, its history decorously re-edited by people like Todd Gitlin. Anyone who wants to get a sense of the real thing can go and buy a copy of my dear dead friend Andrew Kopkind's ‘Thirty Years' War,’ published by Verso three years ago, and for a quicker look they can now buy ‘1968, Marching in the Streets,’ a bracing photo-narrative by Tariq Ali and Susan Watkins.

It took me through many scenes of fond memory, such as Paris in May-June 1968, acrid with tear gas and inflated rhetoric. I remember standing on a street corner in the Latin Quarter, surrounded by burned cars, and saw Stephen Spender and Mary McCarthy ambling along with a look of high purpose.

I asked them if they were off to the big political demonstration, scheduled in a sports arena later that afternoon. No, Mary McCarthy said, adding that in fact they were going to lunch at the home of one of the French Rothschilds. Spender, feeling that this might seem an inappropriate rendezvous at this revolutionary moment, bleated defensively, “Entin, ils sont un peu communiste, les Rothschilds,” which translates as, “After all, the Rothschilds are a bit communist.”

Already that year I'd been to Havana for the Cultural Congress, attended by leftists from around the world. As Tariq and Susan remind me in their vivid narrative, one of those attending this Congress was the Mexican muralist Siqueiros, noted Communist, famed among other things for his machine-gun attack on Trotsky's home in Coyoacan, Mexico in 1940. Trotsky escaped injury in this assault. In Havana Siqueiros was greeted with cries of “murderer” by young French delegates when they spotted him outside the Havana Gallery of Modern Art. The young poet Joyce Mansour then launched a kick at Siqueiros' behind, shouting, “That's from André Breton!” (Siqueiros is a better artist than Breton all the same.)

I was attending as a delegate from New Left Review, along with my friend Robin Blackburn. Robin had arrived in Havana two weeks earlier and had used his leisure moments to commence an affair with a Cuban woman, an exhilarating relationship whose only disadvantage was that she was the mistress of Manuel Pineiro, or “Barba Roja” (Red Beard), the head of Cuban intelligence.

Unsurprisingly, Robin was told that he was to be expelled from Cuba. As he was being hauled off to the airport Robin thrust some pages into my hands. He explained it was the text of his big speech to the plenary session, to be attended by 3,000 of the world's premier left intellectuals. Because there were length restrictions, he'd put the second half under my name. He asked me to read out the whole thing. I asked him what it was about and he said vaguely that it was a comparison between the Weberian bureaucrat and the Leninist cadre. This didn't mean much to me. I shoved it in my pocket and bid him adieu.

The next day I heard from friends that the big talk around the conference was that the “Blackburn-Cockburn theses” — as they were now known — would be an artful attack on political trends in Cuba, from a Trotskyist point of view. Robin was indeed a member of the Trotskyist Fourth International. The hall was packed. I tottered onto the platform and listened as the painter Matta announced that Cockburn would now deliver the long-awaited speech. As I read them for the first time I realized that they were indeed fierce criticisms of the Cuban revolution for supposed bureaucratic sclerosis. 

As I finished, a forest of hands shot up. The world's Marxist brainboxes clamored for my blood. I told Matta I was stepping outside for a breather, and then fled the scene. Later, the Cubans published the “Blackburn-Cockburn Theses” to show they didn't mind a spot of comradely criticism. 

These days Robin is editor of New Left Review and has just concluded a spectacular two-volume history of the overthrow of colonial slavery. 

On Mencken & Waugh

Reading Mencken’s diaries and yet another book about E. Waugh. Both are cursed by their admirers, young blimps on the make, looking around for role models. Cultists latch onto the bullying displayed in Waugh’s diaries and letters, while imitators like Emmett Tyrell of The American Spectator manage to ape Mencken’s loutishness but without his fun or learning.

A prodigious worker all his life, Mencken lamented near the end that he had not worked even harder. There was always something waiting to written. “If I am alive two or three years hence,” Mencken wrote in his diary in 1931, “I shall tackle Homo Sapiens, a large treatise on the human race setting forth all my ideas on the subject. My plan is to document it heavily…After that, what? I scarcely know. I’d like to do a psychological autobiography, describing the origin and growth of my ideas…I’d also like to do a book on government.”

In 1964, two years before his death, Waugh confessed to Christopher Sykes: “My life is roughly speaking over. I sleep badly except occasionally in the morning. I get up late. I try to read my letters. I try to read the paper. I have some gin. I try to read the paper again. I have some more gin. I try to think about my autobiography. Then have some more gin and it’s lunch time. That’s my life. It’s ghastly.”

Mencken hated Roosevelt for his success in getting America into the war, but I could find in the diary no admiration for Hitler and a few disobliging remarks about Nazis. Alfred Knopf, publisher of Mencken’s American Mercury, had famously reproved Mencken for being credulous about Hitler. The diary’s editor, Charles Fecher, declares that the entries establish that Mencken was an anti-Semite, a charge against which he had previously defended him.

Evidence for the anti-Semitism is mostly to be found in Mencken’s constant naming of people as Jews or Jewesses, but that is not the end of it. There is a bland account of the eviction of a member of Baltimore’s Maryland Club on the grounds that he had concealed his Jewish origins, and a couple of other entries suggest that Fecher was right. But he should have elaborated that by the same token Mencken was prejudiced against blacks and indeed crackers, out of certainty, it seems clear, that they were of inferior genetic material. Mencken was a keen eugenicist, but then so was much of the American liberal elite–more so than the conservatives.

One of Mencken’s most ferocious entries, made on July 19, 1944, concerns mountain folk of North Carolina near Roaring Gap, “supposed to be inhabited by ‘the only pure Anglo-Saxons left in the United States.’” They turn out, on acquaintance, to be a wretchedly dirty, shifty, stupid and rascally people.” Mencken raves on about their predatory rampages through the homes of summer residents of Roaring Gap, concluding with their “hostility to all growing things,” which he contrasts with the “more civilized” horticulture of Negroes, who have very pretty gardens (“though their tastes naturally runs to the more gaudy colors”) and who take good care of their houses, though “the colors used are garish, but they are at least niggerish, and the occupants plainly take some pride in the appearance of their house. No linthead or mountaineers [sic] ever shows any feeling for beauty. They all live like animals, and are next door to animals in their habits and ideas.”

 (January 14, 1990. 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.)

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