Shaking up the left

HARRY BARNES finds Nick Cohen’s book, What’s Left?, a stimulating yet flawed polemic.

Love it or hate it, this is a readable and serious political romp. In What’s Left? How liberals lost their way, Nick Cohen wishes to shake up wide elements of left and liberal opinion which he feels ignore some clear home truths about terrorist, nihilist, totalitarian, criminal and fascist activities in the modern world.

When a writer is driven by such a passion, they are liable to look for evidence and arguments that will tug at the heart strings. It is this very passion which explains both the strengths and weaknesses of this book.

The author is not claiming that the Bush administration, with support from Tony Blair has been spotless in its moves to police sections of the world. But he is highly critical of those who condemn the Bush-Blair axis and then go on to ‘understand’, excuse or even endorse the acts of extremists – including those of the late and unlamented Slobodan Milosevic.

Cohen believes these errors of judgement are widespread and arise from two major factors.

First, many on the left believe what they term ‘western imperialism’ is merely reaping what it has sown in countries such as Iraq. The plight of the Iraqi people, under attack from criminals, sectarians, religious bigots and people with wild international agendas, is written off as merely a result of the forces that invaded the country.

Secondly, the prevelance of post-modern notions on cultural relativism have led many to excuse non-western excesses against homosexuals and women as just aspects of alternative and distinctive cultures. Monstrous actions are accepted as essential parts of such lifestyles, and people claim we have no right to criticise what our own mind-sets can’t comprehend.

Nick’s pickings

I have a great deal of sympathy for Cohen’s negative thesis. He targets many people who often make me moan and groan, including Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, Robert Frisk and the leader of the Stop the War Coalition.

Yet, like an old fashioned ‘balanced’ Manchester Guardian editorial, I feel that we do at times need to take on board some of the criticisms of western excesses which these people come up with, although I recognise that the modern-day Guardian is also in the camp under criticism.

One of my main concerns is the way Cohen builds up his case. Indeed, he is in danger of constructing a counter-mythology of his own. Even though he recognises the excesses of Guantanamo Bay and Al Ghraib, pressures for oil privatisation and many other western-style failures and abuses, his criticisms are only made in passing and give the appearance he is merely protecting his back.

His arguments often lack rigour. He uses what he feels will best hit the emotions and create the mood he is seeking. Plays, poems, psychiatric experiments and hoaxes are all drawn upon. The socialist shortcomings of Stalin, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells and Virginia Woolf (‘a pacifist and screaming snob’) are delved into to show that some elements of the left have always been liable to flip over into elitist, dictatorial and totalitarian extremes.

When he moves on to tackle the more modern nonsenses which have arisen within socialism, he provides racy tales about the follies of Tony Cliff, Ted Grant and Tariq Ali. But there is no mention of any figures from the past 20 years of what is left of Labour’s hard left. The Bennite tendency, remarkably, does not get a single look in. He concentrates instead on the living-dead of recent socialism – Trotskyists and troglodytes such as Gerry Healy.

Present dilemma

For Cohen, the present dilemma for left liberal opinion started when John Major’s Conservative government failed to defend Bosnians from acts of Serbian paramilitary genocide (which the international courts have accepted was at least aided by deliberate inactivity from Belgrade, although the crime goes much deeper than sins of omission).

The Conservative’s acts of appeasement meant there was no counterpoint to growing sympathy on the left for Milosevic, feelings motivated by concern over the continuing break-up of the formerly communist Yugoslavia. When the Labour government finally joined moves to protect Kosovan Albanians fleeing Serb forces in 1999, many on the left opposed the move, pointing to the bombing of civilians in and around Belgrade by NATO forces.

It seemed to me that there were two sides to the coin. We could and should have acted in defence of Bosnia (and even earlier to counter the ethnic battles which raged between the Serbs and Croats). Yet much of the eventual air bombardment hit civilian areas and the military only experienced collateral damage. This is a continuing problem with western-led military action.

We need to develop alternative anti-insurgency methods, to draw upon those we move to protect. We should no longer act as if we are involved in a hot version of the cold war.

Which side are we on?

Cohen’s position on Bosnia is important, showing that his condemnation of extremism in the Muslim world isn’t part of a general anti-Muslim stance, for Muslims were prominent in what had been a fairly integrated society in Bosnia.

He also supported military action in Afghanistan which justified becvause it sought to overturn the Taliban’s marriage of modern totalitarianism and medieval reaction. I too went along with this stance, but I was also a continual critic of the US-led forces’ inappropriate methods of warfare and their occupational techniques.

While Cohen is in no doubt that the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq were fully justified to tackle Saddam Hussein’s expansionism, and his genocide against some of his own people, he displays an ambiguity towards those of us who warned against invasion because of it would destabilise the country while, immediately after the event, moving to support Iraq’s own complex forces of democracy and pressing for measures to tackle terrorism.

To Cohen, we are guilty of marching with the Stop the War Coalition in that mass demonstration, but he then pats us on the head for our subsequent stance, which is seen acting in the best traditions of the old left in the trade unions and the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Indeed, he even goes so far as to dedicate his book to the late Hadi Saleh, the Iraqi trade union leader who was brutally murdered by terrorists in Baghdad in 2005. Yet Hadi (whose meetings I chaired in the House of Commons) was an opponent of the invasion, although as soon as it took place he returned to his homeland and become an activist and organiser to further trade unionism and democracy inside Iraq. I have always argued that Hadi’s opposition to the invasion, and his decision to use the new openings it provided, were both correct positions.

However, I grant that those of us who opposed the invasion were under an obligation to say what alternatives we sought to end Saddam’s reign of terror. For me this should have involved support for the very type of clandestine activity which Hadi and his comrades engaged in. With practical acts of solidarity from outside Iraq we could have opened the way for progressive Iraqi forces to instigate regime change.

The Zionist question

Cohen also strongly defends Israel, although he argues that a solution to the Palestinian conflict requires a confrontation with both Jewish and Muslim ultras. And he is strongly critical of liberals who camouflage forms of anti-Semitism under the cloak of anti-Zionism.

It seems to me that the left must avoid such dangers by clarifying what we understand by the concept of ‘anti-Zionism’, for it is possible to adopt forms of Zionism and anti-Zionism at the same time. Zionism initially referred to the movement to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. When Israel was established, with widely recognised borders and theoretical rights for its Arab citizens embodied in its constitution, a major element of the initial project had been achieved.

Those of us who recognise the right of Israel to exist and to take reasonable action to defend itself have, in fact, come to accept a partial Zionist position, although we may not recognise the rights of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, nor Israel’s freedom to act at will in Gaza and the Lebanon. Many of us have not come to this understanding from ideological positions, but mainly in coming to terms with the politics of the situation. However, those of us who were young children at the time of the holocaust, may have developed sympathies which gave little consideration at the time to the Arab question.

We need to be clear that we are opposed to Zionist expansion and to any desire to treat Arabs as second class citizens. Many anti-Zionists obscure the distinctions I have made. Their ill-defined form of anti-Zionism allows them to accept those who wish to destroy the state of Israel, while telling the rest of us they aren’t anti-Semitic because they favour a two-state solution to the Palestine problem.

Yet, while some play a three-card trick to obscure distinctions between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, Zionist lobbies (of both types) avoid valid criticisms of Israel and its supporters. We should not be fooled by the language tricks on both sides of this divide.

Walking and chewing gum

Cohen’s achievement is to alert us to very real dangers of contemporary evils, including totalitarianism, although he needs to recognise that these will not always be experienced in their absolutists forms. As Mary Kaldor pointed out on the Open Democracy website in 2005, ‘by spring 2003 the [Iraqi] regime exhibited characteristics that are typical of the last phase of totalitarianism – a system that is breaking up under the impact of globalisation, unable to sustain its closed, autarchic, tightly-controlled character’.

However, there is an urgent need to contain, push back and end the forms of development which concern Cohen. Of course, it is difficult to achieve his aims without involving the world’s major economic, cultural and political power – the USA. After all, without our moral support, the US will still either intervene in some form or they will go into an even more dangerous form of isolation. We need to acknowledge this while seeking to influence their role.

Democratisation of the world’s major institutions is essential so these strcutures can only be directed towards justifiable interventions with worthwhile ends, and so the best available use is made of humanitarian methods. The democratic taming and revitalisating of such power structures is part of the means we have to keep the world and its peoples safe from the forces which Cohen wants us to face up to.

Hard choices have to be made in situations of crisis, yet we can’t always easily choose between imperialism, on the one hand, and fascism on the other. We will often need to tackle both at once as we learn to ‘walk and chew gum at the same time’ – to use a phase employed by Cohen. George Orwell understood this.

In the meantime

I appreciate that we can’t wait for improved forms of democracy before we next act to protect ourselves and others. Each crisis offers a democratic opportunity of its own – like the worldwide marches against the invasion of Iraq, whose main humanitarian drive Cohen fails to understand.

While we wait for a full democratic breakthrough, we have no option but to decide how to deal with problems according to the complexities of each set of circumstances. So, despite serious problems, I am solidly opposed to an attack on Iran.

But that doesn’t mean that I agree with Andrew Murray or George Galloway. The Iranian regime needs to be pulled into discussions, moved away from developing nuclear weapons and from its expansionist instincts.

We often are pressed into acting quickly on gut reactions. I am not, therefore, arguing that before we can act we have to engage in a never-ending series of academic seminars. But regular thought and discussion on the left about our democratic, humanitarian, libertarian and socialist values will help us to see the wood as well as the trees.

The paradox of Cohen’s stimulating book is that it was his earlier work that showed us what had taken place within the Labour Party, processes which set back the kinds of thoughts I recommend above. Although things were far from perfect beforehand, it was those ‘pretty straight guys’ around Tony Blair who helped the Labour Party abandon its traditional ideals. In What’s Left? Cohen throws away his earlier perceptions along with the murky bathwater he has now discovered.

When he produces a synthesis of What’s Left? and Pretty Straight Guys, it should really be something.

A version of this article originally appeared on Harry Barnes’ personal blog.
What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, by Nick Cohen, is published by Fourth Estate, 2007.

1 Comment

  1. Summer 2007 - ILP
    22 October 2010

    […] will last The right to the city David Harvey calls for a re-imagined city to meet our urban dreams Shaking up the left Harry Barnes finds Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? a stimulating polemic, despite its flaws A few […]

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