In his autobiography, I, Claud…, Cockburn describes being recruited by the Daily Worker in late 1936:
“It was about this time that Mr. Pollitt, Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, whom I had never met, was suddenly announced on the telephone. Would I, he asked, take the next train, in 20 minutes or half an hour, and report on a mine disaster at Gresford, North Wales. Why? Because he had a feeling that there was a lot more to it than met the eye. But why I in particular? Well, because, it seemed, Mr. Pollitt — who was worrying at the time about what he believed to be a lack of ‘reader appeal’ in the Daily Worker — had been reading The Week, and thought I might do a good job.”
The Week was the mimeographed newsletter Cockburn had launched in 1933 to influence the political influencers of the day. He’d been confident it would succeed and it had. His small network of foreign correspondents was meeting several times a week to share information. “There was something to be said for regular exchanges even when there seemed to be no news at all,” Cockburn writes in I, Claud... The mere fact of each in turn going through a kind of ‘total recall’ of what had been said by informants — diplomats, financiers and others — during the course of the past 48 hours was clarificatory and often produced a piece of the great jigsaw which otherwise could’ve been overlooked or forgotten.”
The Week published stories that correspondents “could not venture to send directly to their papers or news agencies but which they could send if they had just appeared in The Week and could thus be quoted instead of being sent on the responsibility of the correspondence... And then naturally the whole business ‘snowballed.’ When it was seen what kind of stories The Week uniquely would handle all sorts of people —for motives sometimes noble and quite often vile— would approach The Week to draw its attention to the most extraordinary pieces of more or less confidential information. Sometimes it came from frustrated newspapermen who could not get what they considered vital news into their own papers. More often such confidences were the outcome of obscure financial or diplomatic duels. They would come for instance from a Councilor of an Embassy who was convinced of the wrongheaded policy of the Foreign Office and the Ambassador.”
Sources inside Germany risked their lives communicating with The Week. One informant, “a devout Catholic and astute anti-Nazi,” was an aide to von Papen, the former chancellor who served as Hitler’s vice-chancellor in 1933-34. “It was of course impossible,” Cockburn writes, “for this secretary to send his information through the mails and I had, in fact, insisted that nothing must be written down at all. I had messenger, a former sports writer whom nobody suspected of being anything but a damn fool, travel to and from Berlin to talk with the secretary, memorize his information and bring it back to London.
“Unfortunately the secretary was less careful than he should have been. He kept a file of The Week… One day in June my messenger, who generally had very little interest in politics and was not particularly alert to what was going on, arrived in Berlin and went to see the secretary. The copies of The Week were covered in blood — the man had been shot at close range by the SS assassins who had just invaded the house. Our liaison man escaped, by an estimated four minutes, before they returned to the lower floors after a search of the bedrooms to find someone else they might like to kill.”
Note the touch of irony at the end of that tragic paragraph. Irony being a form of humor according to Fowler’s Modern English Usage (a book Cockburn advised his son Alexander to consult from time to time), his sense of humor seems inextinguishable.
About the Nazi Ambassador to London, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Cockburn writes: “You did not have to waste time wondering whether was some latent streak of goodness in him somewhere. To help mold his ideas I had arranged to have conveyed to him that my real name —now clumsily translated from the German— was Hahnbrant and that my father came from Czernowitz. Supposing that this piece of intelligence had been treacherously sold to one of his agents by a friend of mine, Ribbentrop was inclined to think it true. He never really believed any report honestly come by.”
When Ribbentrop’s agents (“enormous blondes”) were tailing Cockburn around London, he “arranged for use on these occasions of some informative little dialogue with whichever friend happened to be sitting with me.
“‘Me: Say what you will, you cannot deny the Gentiles started the last war…
“‘Friend: But think of their contributions to literature, culture in general. Look at Shakespeare.
“‘Me: Shakespeare I grant you — if he really was a Gentile. But if you want to talk about writers, what about Wells and Shaw? Typically disruptive, negative Gentile mentalities. Mind you, I’ve many good Gentile friends myself. But taken in the mass... Besides, I always think there’s something queer about their eyes’.”
Ribbentrop’s operative “hurried off to report on the swelling arrogance of the crypto-Jewish conspirators, and add another page or so to my dossier.”
After Cockburn covered the mine disaster for The Worker, Mr. Pollitt asked him to join the Communist Party paper’s staff. The pay would be paltry but Cockburn found the job offer “irresistible —the more so because of my experience among the British Labour people and Liberals.” In addition to editing The Week (which he would keep doing when he joined The Worker staff), he had been writing “a weekly page of paragraphs on foreign affairs” for a paper owned by the liberal Daily Herald. ”It was not a bad page,” he reflects, “but it had something frail and brittle about it —and I knew the reason. The things I really thought were happening could not be expressed directly in that Labour-organized newspaper, and once again I faced the same inhibitions and distortions of expression, of style, as I had faced at The Times.”
Cockburn would write for The Worker under the name Frank Pitcairn. “The effective style for the Daily Worker was entirely other than that required for The Week,” he points out in I, Claud..., “so that it was necessary to develop, stylistically, a double personality. This, as I have said, is strenuous, because if you lose for a moment the vivid awareness of either of these two different audiences, the story will fall to bits.” (Style matters —a lot.)
The Worker assigned him to cover the war in Spain. “I got there because I was a Red newspaper reporter,” he states plainly. He doesn’t provide the who-what-where-and-when of joining the CP, but he provides the why: “If there were things to disagree with the Communists about, what I felt at the time was that they were a lot nearer being a creative force in British politics than any other that I could see. Also they were a force that was small, poor and adventurous, and the distance between their thoughts and their actions appeared to me to be a lot shorter than it was when you came to the Labour people, the ‘progressive intellectuals’.”
Cockburn’s reporting on Spain (as Frank Pitcairn) would be vilified by Eric Blair (as George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia) and two generations of progressive intellectuals. Wikipedia makes him sound sinister: “According to writer Adam Hochschild, Cockburn functioned as Stalinist propagandist during the war on [Communist] Party orders.” Cockburn says the same thing light-heartedly when he explains in I, Claud....why his stint as a soldier was brief: “The nature of my job kept me moving fairly briskly between Madrid, London, Paris, Geneva and Gibraltar where I went to do a mixed job of propaganda and espionage — and escaped being assassinated only because a pro-Republican waiter in the hotel where I stayed warned me just in time to get out of town. I was afraid at the time I might be taking necessary precautions, but years later I met one of the organizers of the attempt who assured me the waiter’s warning and my own fears had been perfectly well-grounded.”
Soon after arriving in Spain, Cockburn had joined a unit defending the Republic (a democratically elected government intent on land reform that was facing a coup by the military on behalf of the big landowners and the Catholic Church.) He was sent “to the Sierra front with a company of barely trained peasants.” Their commander, a former captain in the Foreign Legion, deserted to the enemy after ordering Cockburn and his new comrades to “charge straight up a bare hillside against a fort full of Moorish machine gunners. A lot of the men charged holding their rifles high above their heads with one hand and giving the client fist salute with the other. It emerged that they had taken the highly stylized and symbolical posters designed by the Madrid intellectuals, showing a Soldier of the Republic in this posture, as illustrations of correct military practice… A lot of them were killed or wounded before they got converted to the idea that, as instructional diagrams, there was something wrong with those posters...
“I had been only a few weeks at the front, and had been promoted to corporal after two of our sergeants followed the Foreign Legion captain across the lines to the enemy, when I was summoned abruptly to London to take a hand in the campaign to influence the policies of the Labour Party and Trade Union Congress against non-intervention... I was thankful when I was summoned to the Communist Party headquarters by Mr. Pollitt and ordered to write a book about the Spanish War instead. It was wanted ASAP, so, Comrade Cockburn reveals, “I was locked in a bed-sitting-room... and told not to come out until the book was done. A nurse was in attendance to give me shots in the arm in case I fell asleep or dropped dead from exhaustion.”
The Cliveden Set
Claud Cockburn did not coin the aphorism that is often attributed to him, “Believe nothing until it has been officially denied.” He had been hearing that cynical advice, he writes in I, Claud ..., ”since becoming a journalist.” He cited when he described a leading Wall Street banker calmly reassuring a roomful of reporters that “There was nothing basically wrong with the country’s economy. What had occurred was due simply to ‘a technical condition of the market.’”
Cockburn did coin a phrase that had political impact. In The Week he had been exposing “those in high places... working for the appeasement of Adolf Hitler,” who often gathered and conferred at the Astor family’s Thames-side estate at Cliveden.” When Cockburn dubbed them “The Cliveden Set” in a headline, the mocking, class-conscious appellation caught on. Today “The Cliveden Set” warrants its own Wikipedia entry! Cockburn’s authorship of the term is acknowledged, and The Wiki notes, “It has long been widely accepted that the aristocratic Germanophile social network was for friendly relations with Nazi Germany and helped create the policy of appeasement.” But, the Wiki goes on:
“The actual beliefs and influence of the Cliveden Set are matters of some dispute. In the late 20th century, some historians of the period came to consider the allegations about it to have been exaggerated. For instance, Christopher Sykes, in a sympathetic 1972 biography of Nancy Astor, argued that the entire story about the Cliveden Set had been an ideologically-motivated fabrication by Cockburn that came to be generally accepted by a public, which was looking for scapegoats for the British prewar appeasement of Adolf Hitler. Some academic arguments have stated that Cockburn’s account may have not have been entirely accurate, but his main allegations cannot be easily dismissed.”
Adam Hochschild, in his introduction to a revised edition of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, reminds us that “The British Union of Fascists boasted 50,000 members; wearing black tunics, black trousers, and wide, black leather belts, they paraded through Jewish neighborhoods of London under a flag with a lightning bolt, shouting insults, giving the straight-arm salute, and beating up anyone in their way.” The possibility of the Tory Party’s rightwing elite prevailing over the anti-Nazi faction led by Winston Churchill would influence Claude Cockburn’s assessment of the infamous non-aggression pact between Russia and Germany in 1939.
PS: Cockburn on Hemingway
“At breakfast one day in his room at the Florida hotel, which more or less overlooked the nearest part of the front, Mr. Ernest Hemingway was very comforting about the shelling. He had a big map laid out on the table, and he explained to an audience of generals, politicians, and correspondents that, for some ballistic reason, the shells could not hit the Florida keys. He could talk in a very military way and make it all sound very convincing. Everyone present was convinced and happy. Then a shell whooshed through the rooms above Mr. Hemingway’s — the first actually to hit the Florida — and the ceiling fell down on the breakfast table. To any lesser man than Mr. Hemingway the occurrence would’ve been humiliating. While we were all getting the plaster out of our hair, Mr. Hemingway looked slowly round at us, one after the other. ‘How do you like it now, gentlemen?’ he said, and by some astonishing trick of manner, conveyed the impression that this episode had actually, in some obscure way, confirmed instead of upset his theory.”
PS. From Andrew Cockburn
Andrew Cockburn says that his father appreciated the way Hemingway recovered his aplomb after the shelling at the Florida, and, even more, "his ability to follow instructions." (As the foremost Communist propagandist in Spain, Claud Cockburn would often have important requests to make of his colleagues.)
Claud came to despise the poet Stephen Spender, for whom he had authorized a visa. Upon arriving, Andrew says, Spender demanded to be provided with a donkey so that he could travel about “and experience the real Spain.”
(Next installment: Spain.)