Review of 'What’s Left?': some justified criticisms and the wrong conclusions

Submitted by cathy n on 11 February, 2007 - 11:53

An assessment of Nick Cohen's book

By Stan Crooke

“And where were the grandly self-righteous moralizers like Cohen back in the 80s when Britain and the US were supporting this fascist regime (i.e. Saddam Hussein)? I knew very well what Saddam was doing to his people only because I was reading the left press in the UK and the US. The mainstream press and establishment liberals like Cohen et al weren’t saying anything.”

Thus did one of the contributors to a recent discussion about Nick Cohen’s book on the “Comment is Free” blog run by the Guardian newspaper devastatingly expose Cohen’s hypocrisy in writing What’s Left?

But, like so many others who have denounced Cohen’s book, the contributor had clearly not even read it.

What was Cohen doing in the 1980s? The answer is to be found on page five of his book. Cohen was working at the Observer, next to a journalist called Farzad Bazoft. In 1989 Bazoft went to Iraq to cover Hussein’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds. The Iraqi secret police arrested him, tortured him, and executed him. Tory MPs excused his murder by accepting the Iraqi government’s claim that Bazoft was an Iranian spy.

Another contributor to the same discussion thread identified the forces deservedly bringing “Cohen et al” to their knees: “Those who are knocking the stuffing out of Cohen and his imperialist/Zionist buddies aren’t the wishy-washy useless Fabians but the resistance fighters of Iraq, the people of Venezuala, the reborn power of Russia, the fury of the world’s poor against the IMF/WTO regime of imperialist plunder, etc.”

The reference to Cohen’s “Zionist buddies” was not unique. Some contributors to other discussion threads – “Comment is Free” carried several reviews of Cohen’s book – also homed in on Cohen’s “tribal loyalties” and the cover-up operation he was conducting for Israel.

As one well-read contributor put it: “I don’t want to dwell on Cohen’s book, having never read it. But I don’t have to – it is an old, dishonest argument. I can turn to Fox for a more entertaining version. The fear of ‘Islamofascism’ is simply a tactic to let Israel get away with crimes. This is so ridiculously obvious that it would be funny if the stakes weren’t so high.”

Contributors on other threads expressed themselves more openly. One of them explained that Cohen (“just a PR man for Israeli fascists”) supported the invasion of Iraq “for reasons closely connected to his Zionism,” while another asked the question: “It is suspect that no-one in the media has made the point of Cohen’s tribal loyalties, being a Jew he is of course an active Zionists as well. Yet this important fact is never discussed. I wonder why?”

On yet another discussion thread a contributor uncovered the ‘real’ reason why Cohen had written his book: “The reason why Cohen and co. are going nuts over the Left’s obsession with Iraq is their obsession with another Middle Eastern country with an initial ‘I’. The ground under their feet has moved because the progressive left has abandoned their ‘I’. That’s why they have sought new refuge in the arms of the American right.”

At least Cohen got one thing right in his book: being called “Cohen” and attacking “liberal betrayals” is a recipe for trouble. As Cohen puts it: “Your argument could not be debated on its merits. There had to be a malign motive. You had to be in the pay of ‘international’ tycoons or ‘neo-conservatives’. You had to have bad blood. You had to be a Jew. … You will be accused of ‘Zionism’.”

The overt anti-semitism of these criticisms of Cohen’s book is not representative of the general response to Cohen’s book from “liberal-left” opinion. Not to acknowledge that would be to repeat one of the shortcomings of the book itself: to take the worst arguments of your political opponents, and to treat them as representative of the views of your opponents in general.

What is more typical of the hostile response to What’s Left?, however, is the review of the book carried on the “Indecent Left” blog (written by someone who at least went to the trouble of reading the book before reviewing it):

What’s Left? is essentially about the Iraq war. It’s about how Cohen was right to support it, and how his left-wing opponents were wrong, in various ways. For Cohen, the crimes of the anti-war left was not dallying with reactionary Muslims, or their tenuous association with post-modern gibberish, or the countless other accusations scribbled on the charge sheet, but being right about the war. If he illustrates any problem of the left, it is that it gives people like Cohen such an easy ride.”

(Yes! Just surf the web and read the printed reviews of Cohen’s book or the letters pages of the “left-liberal” press – he’s clearly being given “such an easy ride”!)

A contributor to one of the discussion threads about the book on the Guardian website similarly argued that the book is a “classic smear job” on the anti-war movement: “Ray Williams and Eric Hobsbawm were in favour of Stalin’s invasion of Finland? The WRP were a bit mad? What do either of these facts have to do with Britain’s anti-war movement? Absobloodylutely nothing. Cohen is guilty of a classic smear job.”

But What’s Left? is not “essentially” about the Iraq war. In his introduction to the book Cohen spells out what it is about: “What follows is a critical history of how the symptoms of the malaise [of liberal-minded people making excuses for a totalitarian right] began in obscure groups of Marxists and post-modern theorists; how the sickness manifested itself in the failure to confront genocide in the Middle East and Europe until it grew into the raging fever of our day.”

Cohen’s sharpest criticisms in What’s Left? are not directed at the anti-war movement. They are directed at Marxism and the Marxist political tradition. Marxism is not only dead as a political force, according to Cohen, it is also one which never deserved a future anyway.

The Marxist tradition, writes Cohen, has “created many mass murderers.” Marxists “rarely have bad consciences about the mounds of corpses.” Marxism “not only destroyed itself and the lives and liberties of hundreds of millions of people, but crippled those who sought to overthrow the status quo thereafter.” It has “proved over the decades that it had a genocidal life of its own”.

By the beginning of this century, “Marxism was no longer an ideology which could move men and women to kill and be killed.” Commenting on an article written by New Left Review editor Perry Anderson in 2000, Cohen writes:

“All around Anderson the movements that had given purpose to his life were dying or dead, going or gone. … No-one cared about him and his kind any more. The names of the Marxist philosophers who had inspired him to fight for revolutionary socialism in the lecture halls and drawing rooms of Bloomsbury were as unfamiliar to modern students as a list of Arian bishops. … If you can stomach his lament for the passing of the communist slave empires, you must grant that Anderson’s analysis was an honest recognition of defeat.”

For Cohen, it is not only Marxism which has died a death but also the socialist project as whole: “Socialism, which provided the definition of what it meant to be on the left from the 1880s to the 1980s, is gone. Disgraced by the communists’ atrocities and floored by the success of market-based economies, it no longer exists as a coherent programme for government.”

According to Cohen: “The political chasm that separates the twenty-first century from the twentieth is that socialism is not longer credible.” Socialism “vanished in the eighties. Long before the Berlin Wall came down people had stopped thinking about it or seeing it as a plausible answer to the problems of organising society.”

Cohen even doubts – after eighteen years of Thatcherism and ten years of its New Labour heirs – “if anyone can tell you what a society significantly more left-wing than ours would look like and how its economy and government would work. (Let alone whether a majority of their fellow citizens would want to live there.)”

But the “lost souls of the old far left … the rubble of the far left, the irreconcilables who could not stand the turn history had taken” continue to organise themselves into “totalitarian sects”. In the aftermath of the Cold War, however, “they couldn’t help but notice that there were hardly any revolutionaries left. Beyond a few Maoists in Nepal, no-one was taking up arms and overthrowing governments in communism’s name.”

The result of “the end of socialism and the exhaustion of the liberal agenda” is that the far left now “embraces a kind of nihilism” and “goes along with any movement however far to the right it may be, as long as it is against the status quo in general and, specifically, America.” This “nihilist mentality” allows “the new far left or new far right or however you wish to characterise (it)” to “endorse or excuse any foreign force as long as it is the enemy of Western democracy.”

“Why is it,” asks Cohen, extending his attack from the far left to what he terms the “liberal-left”, “that apologies for a militant Islam which stands for everything the liberal-left is against come from the liberal-left? Why will students hear a leftish post-modernist theorist defend the exploitation of women in traditional cultures but not a crusty conservative don? … In short, why is the world upside down?”

Cohen provides the answer to his own question: “Because it is very hard to imagine a radical left-wing alternative, or even mildly radical alternative, intellectuals in particular are ready to excuse the movements of the far right as long as they are anti-Western.”

Even if the book is not “essentially” about the Iraq war, the war is certainly the event which marks the apogee of the political degeneration identified by Cohen: the moment when the “malaise” became a “raging fever”, when “a million liberal-minded people marched through London to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime.” And “the worst of the lot” in that demonstration were “the organisers … who turned out to be not so much against war but on the wrong side.”

Cohen condemns Gallloway as “a saluter of a genocidal tyrant.” Having failed to make a career in British politics, Galloway “built an alternative career in the Arab dictatorships” and in a hotpotch of miscellaneous isms: “Stalinism, Castroism, Islamism, Baathism … The old distinctions no longer held. Any ism would do as an alternative to democracy.”

The SWP is similarly condemned by Cohen for its undemocratic “opportunism and control freakery”, its pro-Baathist stance once war loomed on the horizon, its subsequent championing of “the resistance”, and its alliance with the Muslim Association of Britain (the British ‘section’ of the ultra-reactionary Muslim Brotherhood).

The broader anti-war movement is condemned in similar terms. It allowed itself to be led by the SWP and Galloway. It went “spinning off into the wasteland of moral relativism” by “pretending that both sides were equally bad and that America and Britain were moral equivalents of totalitarian movements and states.” And it was “unable and unwilling to find a way to oppose George W. Bush while retaining (or discovering) the smallest concern for the victims of fascism.”

The Tribune journalist Paul Anderson has described What’s Left as “a brilliant excoriating polemic.” In fact, Cohen’s book is more of a cut-and-paste job: his attacks on the far left and his other chosen targets are often only a rehash of criticisms which have already largely been done to death elsewhere. This does not mean that such criticisms are necessarily misplaced. But it does make them rather stale – and rather less than what one expects of “a brilliant excoriating polemic.”

Another problem with the book is that that there are simply too many villains in Cohen’s gallery of rogues. Cohen takes swipes, or sideswipes, of varying degrees of ferocity at the WRP, Ken Livingstone, Edward Said, Perry Anderson, Michel Foucault, Naomi Klein, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Jean Baudrillard, Judith Butler, the environment editor of the Guardian, Noam Chomsky, the Revolutionary Communist Party, Virginia Woolf, the Fabians, Sir David Hare, George Lansbury, the Peace Pledge Union, the Communist Party, Eric Hobsbawm, Raymond Williams, and “two-faced civil liberties lawyers” (“too common today”) – and that’s just in the first two thirds of the book.

This whistle-stop tour of greater and lesser left (and not so left) luminaries of the last hundred years or so is too cursory to carry much weight (except for those who already share Cohen’s outlook). Insofar as it does carry weight, it is strangely imbalanced: 16 pages are given to the long defunct WRP, whereas the rather more topical SWP is dealt with in less than half a dozen pages.

There is also an element of sleight of hand in Cohen’s definitive conclusions about the bankruptcy of the Marxist political tradition. He cites only three specific examples of organisations in this country which claimed adherence to that tradition: the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), and the SWP. But these three organisations, especially the first two, are hardly definitively representative of the British Marxist tradition.

Cohen himself writes that “everyone else on the Left [with the exception of Ken Livingstone] thought the WRP was a party of nutcases.” The same also holds true of the RCP, even if Cohen does not make the point himself: everyone else on the Left, including even Ken Livingstone, thought they were a party of nutcases.

And while the SWP is not considered a party of nutcases as such, their alliance with Galloway and the Muslim Association of Britain has hardly escaped criticism from other sections of the Marxist Left (even if the overall level of criticism falls far short of the opprobrium which the SWP deserves).

Along with the Marxist political tradition, Cohen also dismisses socialism as a failed political project. But there is surely something profoundly wrong with an argument when it can be attacked by the Fabian Society – from the left. In his brief review of What’s Left? Fabian General Secretary Sunder Katwala writes:

“Cohen thinks this is all over – there are no causes left, except perhaps the environment: 'I doubt if anyone can tell you what a society significantly more left-wing than ours would look like.’ He is wrong. It would be a more equal society, where our opportunities in life were not so strongly determined by who our parents are and where we commit to sustain our environment for future generations. There are many great causes left - at home and abroad. Why doesn't Nick Cohen join those campaigns?”

Of course, some of us have a rather more far-reaching conception of what a socialist society would look like (no nuclear weapons, democracy in the workplace, no monarchy, no immigration controls, secularism, etc., etc.) than that suggested by the Fabians’ General Secretary. But, unlike Cohen, at least he’s pointing in the right direction.

“Why is the world upside down?” asks Cohen in the introduction to his book. A hundred pages later on he refers to the 1968 generation of radicals “standing on their heads and using the language of the left to justify the far right.” But if the 1968 radicals and, indeed, the entire world, are upside down, then so too is Nick Cohen.

If the Left (or sections of the Left, or liberals, or some liberals, or “liberal-left” opinion – one of the book’s weaknesses is that it is not always clear just who exactly is Cohen’s target) is now a force for reaction, then does it not follow that the forces of reaction are now a force for progress? And that is what Cohen effectively argues:

“Wolfowitz … and the other neo-conservatives who were to take up the anti-Saddam cause were hated because of their espousal of causes the liberal-left had once owned but no longer had the moral self-confidence to defend. … The devil had stolen the best tunes. ‘The neo-conservatives were fighting the left’s battles for them,’ said Makiya (author of Republic of Fear) pithily, and no-one likes a plagiarist.”

Applied to Iraq – and this certainly seems to be implicit, if not explicit, in Cohen’s position in support of the war – this argument would mean that the UK-US invasion of Iraq and their overthrow of the Baathist regime constituted a case of “the neo-conservatives fighting the left’s battles for them.”

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that Cohen and others on his political wavelength should have supported the invasion: they thought that Bush and Blair were implementing the left’s agenda! Clearly, however, and everything which has occurred since March of 2003 bears this out, US and UK imperialism were implementing their own agenda in invading Iraq.

But Cohen is nothing if not consistent (at least on this point). If the neo-conservatives now espouse the causes of the liberal-left and fight the left’s battles for them, then it follows that they should have the firepower to do so.

Cohen therefore takes Europe to task for failing to maintain military spending at the same level as the US: unlike the latter, “it (Europe) wasn’t prepared to fight for itself or its values. … War was the way of the past. … The temperament of the European public was pacific and conciliatory.” The only exception to this was the “martial culture” of Britain: “Britain defined itself by its willingness to stand up to totalitarianism. Our finest hour was 1940.”

Support for unilateral nuclear disarmament is similarly dismissed as “astonishingly dunderheaded.” Those who advocate it are “clearly in the wrong.”

And even though What’s Left?, as the title itself indicates, is about the left rather than the Iraq war, the standard criticism raised in many reviews of the book is certainly valid: given Cohen’s support for the invasion of 2003, why does he make no attempt to explain how Iraq has ended up, in his own words, a “bloody catastrophe” and a “disaster”?

Could it be that Bush and Blair did not share Cohen’s commitment – of which there is no doubt, and the fact that this comes across clearly in the book is one of its few strengths – to the victims of Baathist oppression?

Little or nothing of the response to What’s Left? will have disabused Cohen of his strange belief that Bush and Blair are fighting the left’s battles for them. (Presumably in much the same way that Thatcher did in 1982, when she opposed the seizure of the Falkland Isles by an Argentinian military dictatorship. Once you have started going along the road entered upon by Cohen – where do you draw the line?).

As Paul Anderson puts it: “Okay, let's get serious again. I've now read just about every review of Nick Cohen's What’s Left and I'm astonished at how few of them get what the book is about. It's not a defence of his position on the war in Iraq, and it's not an assault on the whole of the left by a renegade.”

Leaving aside the latter claim (“… it’s not an assault on the whole of the left by a renegade …”), Anderson is certainly right to say that very few people seem to understand the arguments in “What’s Left?” Instead, they take the easy way out: Cohen supported the Iraq war? That says everything. You don’t even need to read the book to know how bad it is!

Cohen makes some entirely legitimate attacks on what he terms a “malaise” amongst sections of the Left. To say that such attacks are legitimate is not to endorse Cohen’s alternative (the infamous “Euston Manifesto”). But much of the criticism of What’s Left? fails to respond to those attacks, or, on more than one occasion, even to understand the criticisms being voiced by Cohen.

Thus, for example, the review on the “Indecent Left” website refers to the anti-war left “dallying with reactionary Muslims.” It’s certainly progress for the “Indecent Left” to acknowledge that reactionary Muslims are reactionary Muslims. But the anti-war left, in the form of SWP and the Stop the War Coalition (SWC), did not “dally” with reactionary Muslims: it allied with them and boosted them as the representatives of the Muslim community in Britain.

The same review addresses Cohen’s call for support for Iraqi trade unionists – only to sneer at it: “He’s fascinated by certain unionised workers in Iraq and Iran being tyrannised by George Bush’s enemies. But when, for instance, did he ever mention the Gate Gourmet dispute in the UK? As far as I can tell, he did so once.”

This is exactly the kind of odious and morally bankrupt ‘left’ politics which Cohen rightly attacks in What’s Left? Those who tyrannise trade unionists in Iraq and Iran are George Bush’s enemies? Today they may be, but tomorrow Bush could just as easily cut a deal with them – at the expense of Iraqi trade unionists.

More importantly, those who tyrannise, who shoot, bomb, kidnap, torture and murder trade unionists in Iraq are first and foremost the enemies of trade unionism. As such, Iraqi trade unionists have a right to expect solidarity – not sneers – in their struggle for survival.

Nick Cohen has written only one article about the Gate Gourmet strikers? Well, look on the bright side. Unlike the approach of the SWP, George Galloway, and other leading figures in the SWC to Iraqi trade unionists, at least Cohen has never claimed that their union is not a genuine one, that it collaborates with imperialism (through affiliation to the Labour Party),and that if all the strikers were murdered, then they’d only have themselves to blame for being collaborators.

And then there’s Nick Cohen’s criticisms of the SWC leader who made a name for himself by “saluting the fascistic perpetrator of racial extermination campaigns.” How do Cohen’s critics respond to his attacks on Galloway’s politics (insofar as they respond to them at all)?

One response, on a discussion thread on the New Statesman website, is to express outrage that anyone could dare suggest that Galloway is some kind of leading figure in the SWC: “George Galloway is in no way the leader of the SWC. Tony Benn is the President, Lindsay German the Convenor, and I think that Andrew Murray is the Secretary. Galloway holds, to the best of my knowledge, no major post in the SWC.”

An alternative response, on the same thread, is to argue that Galloway is adored by millions of proletarians, whereas Nick Cohen is not liked even by his own mum: “Whether you like or dislike it, Galloway is a hero to millions of people around the globe, all of them working class [Saddam Hussein and his offspring were working class???]. And how many people follow your (Cohen’s) vile views? Not even your own family, I am afraid.”

On another thread, quoted above, a contributor argued that Cohen was doing a “classic smear job” on the SWC by digging up the history of the Communist Party from the 1930s, and that of the WRP from the 1970s.

There is surely something quite ludicrous about thinking that someone has to resort to events of 30 or 70 years ago in order to do a “smear job” on the SWC. What “smears” the SWC, as Cohen correctly states, are the politics of the SWP, George Galloway, and the Muslim Association of Britain.

What’s Left? is not about the Iraq War. To pretend that it is serves as a kind of comfort blanket: clinging to that illusion allows the holder to dismiss the book’s contents on the basis of its author’s support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Cohen’s book is an attack on the left, or at least sections of the left. Some of those criticisms are valid, and some are not. And the overall conclusions he draws are certainly not valid. But challenging his criticisms means, first and foremost, engaging with them – not pretending that they don’t exist.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.