Friday, July 27, 2007

The Ups And Downs Of Nick Cohen

Down With Nick

The current issue of Dissent carries this highly critical review of Nick Cohen's book "What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way". The review is by Johann Hari and it centres upon Nick's views in support of the invasion and of continuing Coalition activity in Iraq.

Johann at one time associated himself closely with Nick's views on these matters. Three weeks prior to the invasion, he wrote an article for The Independent entitled "Lefties For the War" and placed himself in the same camp as Nick.

However, Johann unlike Nick was able to see that there were two sides to the coin and three years later he finally wrote an article saying that he had been wrong and that the invasion had been a grave error. He has since looked for ways to find an exit strategy.

He came up with the idea of the occupying forces organising a referendum as to whether they should leave or not. This was a non-starter as the people with formal authority over referendums are the Government via the Iraqi Parliament, who could if they wished ask us to leave (but don't).

He did well, however, to point out the need to remove or firmly control the operation of private security firms in Iraq, whose personnel act as mercenaries and easily outnumber the British troops.

Like most converts to a cause, he goes over the top with some of his criticisms of the views of his former running mate. But what he has to say in his four key sections is well worth reading, as long as the reader retains a critical approach. These sections are on (1) Islamism, (2) Ba'athism, (3) the proper role for the left and (4) Neo-Conservatism.

Up With Nick

In response to Johann's article, Oliver Kamm has rushed to Nick's defence here and here. As Oliver has written a book entitled "Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case For Neo-Conservatism", he knows his way around the literature and is keen to protect Nick within his own area of expertise. Oliver has also reviewed Nick's book here. Oliver's left-wing credentials are, however, rejected by those who feel that Blairism was beyond the pale.

It is when Oliver and Nick criticise the thrust of the one-sided arguments which come from people such as Noam Chomsky, George Galloway and Andrew Murray that I am with them.

So Johann can be read as thesis and Oliver as anti-thesis - or visa-versa depending where you come in to this argument. Guess who wrote the synthesis?

Levelling With Nick

My own views on Iraq cut across the divide between Johann and the Nick who is supported by Oliver. On the one hand, I strenuously opposed the invasion of Iraq and was then highly critical of Coalition excesses and shortcomings. But on the other hand, I opposed both terrorism and the insurgency from the start and have continuously supported those Iraqis who have used the new situation to try to build civic society and a democratic nation. This line seems to me to be essential for what is left of the left, whatever our passing thoughts happen to be about the stationing of foreign troops.

My own review of Nick's book appears here and in the Summer 2007 issue of the "Democratic Left", the bulletin of Independent Labour Publications. It differs from Johann and Oliver's approaches in that I'm neither an out-and-out critic of Nick, nor a fully fledged supporter. So it lacks the punch of their intellectual polemics.

I agree with much of Nick's analysis on the dangers of fascism in the world, but I don't wish to fall in line with the norms of Western forms of Imperialism. This is closer to Johann's current analysis than Oliver's. But when Johann changed his stance on the invasion, he seemed to me to be too eager to pick up slogans pushed by the Stop-The-War Coalition. A body which believes that Iraq's problems will essentially be resolved merely by troop withdrawals.

P.S. Norman Geras is now in on the act.


ModernityBlog said...


Why not post a copy of your review here?

sorry but the poor ol ILP site is hopeless rather like relic from the 1950s, they do themselves no favours by the poor design, almost nonexistent functionality and inability to take over the Internet payments (which should be easy by means of a reciprocal arrangement with another Labour organisation)

I am truly astonished at the poor quality of technology employed on Left sites, all for the want of some application and elbow grease

PS: why not ask them to start a blog on wordpress, that will raise their profile (if they wish to influence people)

it is free and easy, there is no excuse not to have of a blog, if they wish to get their ideas to a wider audience

Harry Barnes said...

Modernity Blog; sorry I thought that I had replied to your comment some time ago. Perhaps I then hit the wrong button.

I agree about the ILP web-site and will have a word with them about it. I am not, however, involved with them in an organisational way as I was from the mid 70s to mind 80s.