Monday, 29 August 2011

What's Left?, Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen got into a lot of trouble with the comrades for writing this book.  Various right-wingers liked it, and Christopher Hitchens called it "exceptional and necessary".  On the left, however, the reactions were rather different.  He was politely patronised in the Guardian by Peter Wilby, and he got into a rather tedious argument with no less a person than Johann Hari (Cohen later settled this score by publicly exposing Hari's Wikipedian sock-puppetry).  The Socialist Worker sneered that the book consisted of "363 pages of tedious, self-righteous diatribe", while a better mannered old-left blogger sniffed that it had "a terminological inexactitude on just about every page".  Cohen had clearly hit some raw nerves.


Cohen's basic thesis is straightforward.  Present-day Western leftists are far too soft on assorted totalitarians and fanatics around the world, from Saddam Hussein to al-Qa'eda to Hezbollah to the Iranian ayatollahs to the Muslim Brotherhood.  The reason for this is that a large slice of the modern left is not so much in favour of freedom and equality as it is against the West in general and America in particular:
Accepting that fascism is worse than Western democracy, even Western democracies governed by George W. Bush and Tony Blair, sounds easy in theory, but it is very difficult to do in practice when you are a habitual enemy of the status quo in your own country.
So, Islamist terrorists might be murderous fanatics who despise women, liberal values and modernity, but if they don't like George Bush or Israel then they can't be all bad.  It is classic enemy-of-my-enemy politics - the same ugly way of thinking that led Henry Kissinger to clasp General Pinochet to his bosom, and indeed that led Donald Rumsfeld to give Saddam Hussein a helping hand against Iran in the 80s.  It makes for some very strange bedfellows.  Cohen notes how the likes of the far-left Socialist Workers Party, a group mostly known for selling copies of its retro Leninist newspaper outside London tube stations, have formed alliances with God-fearing conservative Muslims despite having nothing in common with them other than a mutual dislike of aspects of British foreign policy.  This sort of thing is worryingly wrong-headed, if not downright dangerous.  Cohen tells of how bourgeois radicals in London could be spotted carrying placards declaring "We are all Hezbollah now", and of how in Ireland the Iraq War produced the surreal spectacle of a peace movement led by Sinn Féin-IRA.  Something has gone quite badly wrong somewhere.

Cohen spends a fair amount of time on Iraq.  The left vigorously and honourably opposed Saddam's regime in the 1980s, only to oppose even more vehemently the military campaign against him in 1991 and the war to depose him in 2003.  What had caused this volte-face?  The horrendous nature of the Ba'athist regime certainly hadn't changed, so the reason must have lain elsewhere.  What had changed was that the governments of the United States and several other Western countries, which had previously looked to Saddam as a bulwark against revolutionary Iran, had now turned against him - and that seems to have been what really drove much of the left-wing opposition to military intervention.

Don't get me wrong.  It's not as if there weren't reasons enough to oppose the Iraq War.  It's not difficult to argue that the resulting years of chaos and bloodshed were too high a price to pay for deposing Saddam.  One might also argue that the Bush and Blair governments culpably exaggerated the threat posed by WMDs, or that the legality of the war was doubtful because it was never explicitly authorised by the UN.  But one suspects that, for all their high-minded talk of humanitarianism and international law, too many leftists opposed the war on the more atavistic grounds that deposing a genocidal dictator is only ok if it doesn't involve siding with the Bush Administration or making money for oil companies.  It was this kind of mindset that led the likes of the appalling George Galloway to cheer on the Ba'athist "resistance" as they killed and maimed British soldiers following the invasion.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

While all this is going on, says Cohen, liberals, feminists and secularists in Iraq and elsewhere are left out in the cold because progressives in the West are more concerned with appeasing the most vicious and reactionary elements in Muslim society.  He recounts the horrible fate of Hadi Saleh, a veteran Iraqi trade unionist who had been sentenced to death by the Ba'athists back in the 1960s.  He opposed the 2003 invasion but ended up going back to Iraq afterwards to rebuild the eviscerated Iraqi labour movement.  He got few thanks for his troubles from the right-wing American proconsuls in Baghdad, who were busy privatising the country's industries and imposing a flat tax.  But his efforts were nonetheless enough for the "resistance" to identify him as a collaborator and to murder him.  The professional nature of the torture wounds on his corpse pointed to the involvement of former Saddamist secret policemen.  They thoughtfully held onto his address book.  Meanwhile, what was the British progressive press saying about the insurgency and its victims?
The comment pages of the Guardian were a platform for every variety of apologist for Islamist terrorism and the Baathist 'resistance', although my colleagues couldn't be intellectually consistent and provide the same service to white queer bashers, European neo-Nazis and Christian fundamentalists.  The Independent, which had been launched in 1986 as a sober alternative to its narrow-minded rivals, gave up on serious journalism and its dividing lines between news and opinion, and turned its front pages over to agit-prop which wouldn't have made it into a student newspaper.
Cohen is suspicious of attempts to isolate a "root cause" of phenomena like Ba'athism and Islamist terrorism.  He sees them as being rooted as much in psychology and psychopathology as in individuals' rational pursuit of their own self-interests:
Once you have exhausted all comprehensible reasons for a great crime there remains a gap.  The 'root causes' take you to its edge, but then wave goodbye and leave you peering into an unfathomable abyss.  The famines Stalin, Mao and the Ethiopian colonels unleashed, Pol Pot’s extermination of anyone who could read or write or Hitler’s annihilation of the Jews, gypsies, gays and Slavs, Saddam’s regime of torture and genocide and the Islamist cult of death aren’t rationally explicable.  You can cross over to the other side of the abyss only if you shrug off your reasonable liberal belief that every consequence has an understandable cause and accept that enthusiasm for the ideologies of absolute power isn’t always rationally explicable.
It is, says Cohen, "more profitable to look at persecution fantasies, group loyalty, the strongman's will to power and the feeble personality's willingness to obey".

In the context of militant jihadism, talk of root causes tends to be a rhetorical strategy aimed at fixing the blame for terrorism on Western capitalism, which for many hardline leftists remains the real enemy.  But economic explanations for terrorism are incomplete at best.  States which support or harbour terrorists tend not to be dirt-poor, and a surprising number of individual terrorists are respectably middle-class.  Al-Qa'eda, Hamas and their like are not simply anti-globalisation campaigners who have taken things a bit far.  Cohen pays Osama bin Laden the compliment of taking his own words seriously.  When the old boy declared war on the United States in the 1990s, he did so not in protest at the social inequalities arising out of neoliberal economic policies but because American troops were being stationed in the sacred land of Saudi Arabia.  After the 2002 Bali bombings, he explained that he had been exacting revenge on Australia for its role in prising East Timor away from Muslim Indonesia (which would make him an anti-anti-imperialist?).  Following 9/11, Cohen quotes him as boasting:
"The values of this Western civilization under the leadership of America have been destroyed.  Those awesome symbolic towers that speak of liberty, human rights and humanity have been destroyed.  They have gone up in smoke."
He didn't say that the towers were a symbol of capitalism - as a poor little rich boy from Saudi Arabia's second wealthiest family bin Laden made an unconvincing anti-capitalist - but of "liberty, human rights and humanity"....
Rather than listening to what bin Laden was saying, leftish intellectuals adopted a stance for which I can find no precedent: they urged the appeasement of demands that hadn't been made.  They used bin Laden as an ally to promote their own wish list and called for a limit to globalization, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank or a rerun of the disputed 2000 American Presidential election.
Cohen is a bit too fond of the word "fascism".  It is debatable whether this is an appropriate term to use for militant Islamism, or even Ba'athism - though Islamism and fascism do appear to stand in the same broad Counter-Enlightenment tradition of opposition to rationality, civil rights and democratic governance.  Drawing on Buruma and Margalit's Occidentalism, Cohen writes:
Since the beginnings of modern democracy in the American colonies of the eighteenth century, plenty on the Right had dreamed of liberty and human rights going up in smoke.  By 'the right', I don't mean the American Republicans or the British Conservatives or the French Gaullists, but the deep right of the counter-revolution that raged against the American and French Revolutions and the slow evolution of Britain into a democratic society.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it took the form of aristocratic reaction and ethnic nationalism.  In the twentieth, 'scientific' racism and fascism.  The themes and arguments of the vile tradition appeared with remarkable consistency in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, Iran, the Sudan, as well as the ideologies of the Islamist terror groups....

Nationalist, fascist and Islamist alike believed that a 'rootless, arrogant, greedy, decadent, frivolous cosmopolitanism' drove the trading cities of the democracies.  They all condemned Western thought for upholding the cold and specialized reasoning of the scientific method rather than the holistic mysteries of tribe and church.  They all believed that the citizens of the democracies were bourgeois cowards; too selfishly fearful for their personal safety to risk a confrontation.
Another classic far-right motif found among modern-day Islamists is the weird historical curiosity known as the Judaeo-Masonic conspiracy theory.  This was introduced to the Middle East by European fascist governments in the 1930s, and it still appears to account for much of the antisemitism found in Islamist circles - the real, raw antisemitism, that is, as distinct from legitimate criticism of Israel's conduct towards the Palestinians.  This, of course, is another oft-cited "root cause" of international jihadi terrorism, but Cohen rightly observes that this is "to make a very large assumption about a very small war".  Rational opposition to Israeli government policy cannot explain why (say) the Hamas Charter finds the root cause of the conflict in a secret conspiracy of Jews, Freemasons and members of the Rotary Club, as exposed in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  The missing explanatory key here is not the stupidity or brutality of the Likud Party or the settler movement, but rather the irrationalist world of the European Counter-Enlightenment.


How has it come to this?  The traditional left, says Cohen, has passed into history, and he suggests several reasons for this.  Most obviously, the left lost the great economic argument of the 20th century.  Socialism no longer provides a serious alternative to capitalism.  The working classes - whom middle-class intellectuals had never really liked anyway - didn't do what the script said they would.  The revolution never came.  Those countries which had the misfortune to fall temporarily under communist rule have since embraced the free market and Western cultural values; the old orthodoxies of the hard left were buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall.  No-one outside a small eccentric fringe continues to believe in the planned economy, syndicalism or the withering away of the state.

In stark contrast with the collapse of hard-left socialism as a credible alternative to capitalist economics is the crushing triumph of the ideas of the soft liberal left.  Cohen illustrates this with the memorable conceit of imagining how early twenty-first century British society might be explained to the liberal reformers of a hundred years ago:
"Well, all adults will have the vote....  There will be no more talk of working men needing a stake in the country or of women being too fluffy to be trusted with the franchise....  With the exception of China, the empires that oppress the greater part of humanity will be gone.  Britain, Russia, France, Belgium, Austria-Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Germany and the Ottomans will lose almost all their foreign possessions....  The pernicious belief in white racial superiority will decline with imperialism....

Monarchs, sultans, tsars and kaisers will be overthrown along with their empires.  Germany, Russia, Austria and Turkey will become democratic republics....  Christianity will collapse so precipitously that people will talk of a post-Christian Europe....  When the monarchs, aristocrats and priests go, so will deference....  Scientists will be presumed guilty of trying to murder the public.  Teachers will be obliged to make their pupils feel good about themselves rather than force them to memorize lessons.  Politicians will have to abase themselves before jeering electorates....

Everywhere the old rules will break down....  People who uphold the old standards of courtesy and correctness in the written or spoken word will be mistrusted....  The more sentimental and egocentric a writer or speaker is, the better he or she will be received....  There will be no censorship worthy of the name.  Your great-grandchildren will be free to read incendiary political pamphlets and the most explicit pornography.  Bills of rights will protect them from harassment by the authorities.  Armies of lawyers will be on hand to sue those who cause them harm.

The state will give people you have barely thought about legal equality.  By the beginning of the twenty-first century, it will be politically impossible for the leader of the British Conservative Party to condemn equal rights for homosexuals and whole cities will have been adapted to suit the needs of the handicapped.

Yet society will not fall apart because of these new demands.  Ordinary people will live longer and healthier lives than Roman emperors.  About 40 per cent of Britain's national wealth will be spent on welfare.  There will be health care free at the point of delivery from cradle to grave, and insurance against unemployment, sickness and old age....

Politicians will make divorce painless from the legal point of view.  There will be 27,224 divorces in Britain in 1961 and 167,116 in 2004.  There would have been many more if society had forced the young to marry to find sex and children....  The stigma attached to bastards will disappear sometime around the mid-Seventies...."
This is reminiscent of Peter Hitchens' story of the time traveller from Princess Diana's funeral in The Abolition of Britain (in fact, the device goes back to the story of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, which appears in patristic Christian texts and the Qur'an).  At any rate, it succeeds in illustrating just how completely liberal-left ideas have become the conventional wisdom in Western societies.  Conservatives used to fear communist revolution.  Turns out they were looking at the wrong enemy.

The left, then, has lived to see part of its programme utterly discredited and the other parts of it adopted wholesale.  So, what is it for now?  What is its purpose?  What's left?  According to Cohen, the left has lost its way and has descended into unprincipled postmodern decadence.  He also argues - a little inconsistently - that the vices which he identifies in the present-day left are not a recent development but have historical roots.  He takes on the old Guilty Men myth of the Second World War: that Britain in the 1930s had been an impoverished land governed by incompetent Tories who were far too eager to appease the Nazis, and that the Labour Party had taken the lead in opposing fascism and had helped to put good old Winston Churchill in power.  Cohen notes that, in actual fact, quite a few left-wingers were indulgent towards Hitler's Germany and thought that conservative British society wasn't all that different from Nazism anyway.  When the Hitler-Stalin Pact was signed in August 1939, they dropped their remaining opposition to the Nazis and sought to undermine the British war effort.


This is not a perfect book, and some of the criticism levelled at Cohen was justified.  One fair criticism was that he spends too much time attacking obscure factions and individuals on the further reaches of the radical left rather than sensible centre-left progressives.  It is something of a smear to equate mainstream opponents of the Iraq War, who included people from all parts of the political spectrum, with the likes of the SWP and Gorgeous George.  Was Robin Cook a Ba'athist apologist?  Were Peter Hitchens and Sir Menzies Campbell anti-Western fanatics?  It can't be denied that Cohen has something of a tendency to select easy targets.  You don't get many points for inveighing against Gerry Healy, and more people today remember the Judaean People's Front than the Workers' Revolutionary Party.  Something similar can be said about Noam Chomsky: if Cohen thinks that Chomsky's obsessive anti-Westernism is representative of the mainstream liberal-left then Cohen is in error.  As far as history is concerned, Cohen himself admits that the British left in the 30s and 40s cannot be written off as a cabal of Stalinists and appeasers, as such leading figures as Clement Attlee, Ernie Bevin and George Orwell showed.

Nevertheless, this is a powerful and important book.  It annoyed some of the right people and provoked an important debate which is still refusing to go away.  One hesitates to recommend a book that was complimented by James Delingpole, but on this occasion I think I'll make an exception.