August 24, 2012

An attack that “made no sense whatever”: Alexander Cockburn’s fight with a publisher


Alexander Cockburn

In the American Prospect, Harold Myerson considers the legacy of Alex Cockburn, who died last Friday at 71, by revisiting his peculiar reaction to the demolition of Pantheon Books in 1990. Despite the fact that the key figures running Pantheon—among them Andre Schiffrin and Tom Engelhardt—were committed leftists, Cockburn harshly criticized its departing staff and supporters in a column, branding them insufficiently critical of U.S. foreign policy.

As Myerson writes:

I remember in particular the controversy around the sacking of the great editor Andre Schiffrin from Pantheon Books in early 1990, as Random House sought to cut the budget at Pantheon, which it had purchased some years previous. In his three decades at Pantheon, Schiffren had turned it into the nation’s foremost progressive publishing house, publishing the work of Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut, Noam Chomsky and a host of other notable writers. When he was let go, many of those writers joined others not in the Pantheon stable, including E.L. Doctorow, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Todd Gitlin, in protesting his dismissal. Cockburn let fly with a column attacking them all—Schiffrin and Gitlin, who had organized the protest, in particular. The grounds for his attack made no sense whatever: that Gitlin was insufficiently anti-Contra and that all these writers should pay more attention to the predations of U.S. foreign policy than to the Schiffrin firing. It was an odd charge to level against the likes of Chomsky (who relentlessly attacked every single U.S. foreign policy, real or imagined) or, for that matter, against any of the protestors, who universally had opposed Reaganism at home and abroad.

What must have really irked Alex, not that he dropped so much of a hint of this in his piece, was that Schiffrin was a democratic socialist who not only had opposed the Vietnam War but also the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and that he had published the great anti-Stalinist Boris Pasternak. Anti-communist socialists—Orwell, Schiffrin, Irving Howe, whom Alex took particular pleasure in calumniating—threatened Alex’s claim to radical rectitude (not to mention communism’s claim to socialist legitimacy) by their goddam democratic scruples. By attacking Schiffrin, Alex was able to do what he loved most: singling himself out from a presumably conformist, contemptible herd, even though the herd, in this case, included many if not most of America’s serious left-of-center writers.

Andre Schiffrin tells his version of these events in his memoir, A Political Education, published by Melville House.


Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.