Monday, March 05, 2007

Shaking Up What's Left

A review of Nick Cohen’s “What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way” (Fourth Estate, 2007.)

Love it or hate it, this is a readable and serious political romp.

Nick Cohen wishes to shake up wide elements of left and liberal opinion whom he feels can’t see 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
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Post Modern and Anti-Imperialist Blunders


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 Muslim extremists and others - including those of the late and unlamented Milosevic.

Nick Cohen believes that such errors of judgement are widespread and arise from two major factors.

First, many on the Left see what they term as forms of Western Imperialism as merely reaping what they have 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 are then written off as only having been created by the forces which invaded that country.

Secondly, post-modern viewpoints of an avant-garde nature on cultural relativism have led many to excuse Non-Western excesses against homosexuals and women as just being part of alternative and distinctive cultures. Monstrous actions are then accepted as being essential parts of such life styles. It is then believed that we have no right to criticize what our own mind-sets can’t comprehend.

Nick’s Pickings

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

Yet like an old fashioned “balanced” Manchester Guardian editorial, I nevertheless feel that some of the above do come up with criticisms of Western excesses which we do at times need to take on board. Although I also recognise that the modern-day Guardian also fits well into the camp that is under criticism.

One of my main concerns is the way that Nick Cohen builds up his case. 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 merely give the appearance of statutory condemnations made to protect his back.

Vigour Instead of Rigour

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 to 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 over the past 20 years on what is left of Labour’s hard left. The Bennite past remarkably does not get a single look in.

He concentrates instead upon the living-dead of recent socialism - trotskyists and troglodytes such as Gerry Healy.

Genesis Of the Present Dilemma

To Nick Cohen, the modern dilemma for left liberal opinion started under Major’s Conservative Government when it failed to move to defend Bosnians from acts of Serbian paramilitary genocide ( which the International Courts have just accepted was at least aided by deliberate inactivity from Belgrade, although the guilt goes much deeper than sins of omission.)

The Conservative acts of appeasement provided no counterpoint to a growth of sympathy on the left for Milosevic, which was motivated by a concern not to see the continuing break-up of the former Communist Yugoslavia.

When a Labour Government finally joined moves to protect Kosovo Albanians fleeing from Serb forces in 1999, many of the Left opposed the move pointing to the bombing of civilians which NATO undertook in and around Belgrade.

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 still to counter the ethic battles which raged between the Serbs and Croats.) Yet much of the eventual bombardment from the air hit civilian areas with the military only experiencing the collateral damage. This is a continuing problem with Western-led military action.

We need the development of alternative means of anti-insurgency, drawing upon those we move to protect. We should no longer act as if we were involved in a hot version of the Cold War.

Whose Side Are We On ?


Nick Cohen’s position on Bosnia is important in 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 Bosnian Society.

Under the stimulus of Al-Qaeda’s destruction of the Twin Towers, he next supported military action in Afghanistan which also had the key justification of seeking to overturn the Taliban’s marriage of modern totalitarianism techniques with medieval reaction.

I again went along with this stance, but I was still a continual critic of the inappropriate methods of US led warfare and their occupational techniques.

Whilst Nick 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 wide categories of his own people, he displays an ambiguity towards those of us who warned against invasion because of its destabilising consequences but immediately after the event moved to support Iraq’s own complex forces of democracy and pressed for the tackling of terrorism.

We are guilty of marching with the Stop the War Coalition in that mass demonstration, but we are then patted on the head for our subsequent stance. On the latter, we are at least seen to be acting in the best traditions of the old left in the Trade Unions and in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Indeed, he goes as 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 Commons) had been an opponent of the invasion, although as soon as it took place he returned to his homeland and become an activist and organiser for furthering trade unionism and democracy inside Iraq.

I have always argued that Hadi’s opposition to the invasion and the use he then made of the new openings it provided, were both correct positions. Although I grant that those of us who opposed the invasion were under an obligation to say what alternatives we sought in order to end Saddam’s reign of terror. This always seemed to me to involve support for the very type of clandestine activity which Hadi and his comrades were involved in. With practical acts of solidarity from outside of Iraq this could have opened the way for progressive Iraqi forces themselves to have instigated regime change.

On The Zionist Question

In dealing with the general situation in the Middle East, Nick Cohen adopts a strong position for the defence of Israel, whilst arguing that a solution of the Palestinian conflict requires a confrontation with both Jewish and Muslim ultras.

There is then a strong criticism of those liberals who camouflage forms of anti-Semitism under a cloak of anti-Zionism.

Here it seems to me that it is fruitful for the left to avoid such dangers by clarifying what we understand by the use of the concept of “anti-Zionism”. For it is possible to adopt forms of Zionism and anti-Zionism at the same time.

Zionism was initially a movement to establish a Jewish State in Palestine. With the establishment of a State of Israel with its widely recognised borders and its theoretical rights for its Arab citizens as embodied in its Constitution, a major element of the initial project has been achieved.

Without recognising the rights of settlements on the West Bank nor of Israel’s freedom to act at will in Gaza and the Lebanon, 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.

Many of us have not done this from ideological positions, but mainly as a matter of coming to terms with what we saw as the politics of the situation. Although those of us who were young children at the time of the holocaust, may have developed Jewish sympathies which gave little consideration at the time to the Arab Question.

On Zionism, we need to be clear that we are opposed to its expansionist form and to any desire to treat Arabs as second class citizens.

Many anti-Zionists obscure the distinction I have made. Their ill defined form of anti-Zionism allows them to gain the acceptance of those who wish to destroy the State of Israel, whilst telling the rest of us that they aren’t anti-Semitic as they actually favour a two State solution to the Palestine problem.

Clarity on what we mean by anti-Zionism might not be everything, but it sure is an important starter.

But whilst we have a three card trick being played by some to obscure the distinctions we need to have in our mind between Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism, Zionist lobbies (of both the types I describe) can also be used to hide counter criticism of un-praiseworthy acts by Israel or its supporters. We should avoid being fooled by the language tricks on both sides of this divide.

Walking and Chewing Gum

Nick Cohen’s achievement is to alert us to the very real dangers of the contemporary evils I listed earlier, including totalitarianism. Although he needs to recognise that these will not always be experienced in their absolutists forms. As Mary Kaldor has pointed out in relation to Iraq “by spring 2003 the 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” (Iraq: the wrong war, 21.4.05, Open Democracy web-site.)

There is, however, an urgent need to contain, push back and end the forms of development which concern Nick Cohen. It is, of course, difficult to achieve his aims without the involvement of the world’s major economic, cultural and political power - the USA. After all without our moral support, they will still either automatically intervene in some form or they will go into an even more dangerous form of isolation. We need to acknowledge this, yet seek to significantly influence their role.

Democratisation at the level of the world’s major institutions, within the USA and in bodies such as the European Union or within ad hoc cosmopolitan groupings, is an essential. It is needed to direct these structures towards only justifiable interventions which are directed towards worthwhile ends and which ensure the use of the best available humanitarian methods.

The democratic taming and revitalisation of such power structures is part of the very means by which we make it easier to make the world and its peoples safe from the forces which Nick Cohen wishes us to face up to.

Even though hard choices have to be made in situations of crisis, 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 Nick Cohen. George Orwell used to understand 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. Although each crisis does offer a democratic opportunity of its own - like the world-wide marches against the invasion of Iraq, whose main humanitarian drive Nick Cohen fails to understand.

Whilst we wait for a full democratic break-through, we have no option but to decide how to deal with passing 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 my thought processes fit in with those of Andrew Murray or George Galloway. For the Iranian regime needs working upon (being pulled into discussions, for instance) to move it away from its own development of nuclear weapons and its Shia expansionist instincts.

I also realise that in politics, we often are pressed into a need to act quickly in accordance with our 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 Nick Cohen’s stimulating book is that it was in an earlier work of his that he showed us what had taken place within the Labour Party which set back the very processes of thought which I recommend above. Although things were far from perfect beforehand, it was those “Pretty Straight Guys” (Faber and Faber, 2003) around Tony Blair who helped abandon the Labour Party’s traditional ideals. The problem for Nick Cohen is that in “What’s Left?“ he throws away his earlier perceptions along with the murky bathwater which he has now discovered.

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

2 comments:

Action said...

Thanks for the books comment. I'll link to you.
Readers can go there now and join the debate on the best socialist novel, the continuing discussion on how much theory is really necessary, and find out about events in Accrington and Reading.

Danivon said...

Mr Barnes. I haven't read What's Left, and so I can't comment on the details.

However, your stance on the issues raised is pretty much the same as my own. From what I have seen of Cohen's writing, he seems too keen to score points and reticent to accept that reasonable people can hold a different opinion based on reason.

The snippets printed in the Observer pretty much say that anyone who marched in spring 2003 was doing so 'for fascism'. That is enough to turn me off his polemic.