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Solidarity Whenever

'What's Left?' asks Brit Nick Cohen, and his answer isn't pretty.

By Terry Glavin 31 Jan 2007 |

Terry Glavin's most recent book is Waiting for the Macaws and Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions (Penguin). His column for The Tyee, Dissent, appears twice monthly.

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Author Cohen: Fuss magnet

For more than a decade, Nick Cohen has been acknowledged as one of Britain's most consistently caustic and passionate left-wing writers. A fierce critic of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour government, Cohen has done yeoman service, doling out regularly brilliant columns for The Observer and The Evening Standard, and essays for The New Statesman and other such magazines.

Cohen's first book was Cruel Britannia: Reports on the Sinister and the Preposterous (2000). The title says it all. Cohen continued his assault on the hollowness of "New Labour" with Pretty Straight Guys in 2003. Cohen's just-published book, What's Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way takes a much more panoramic view of the state of the left, worldwide. What Cohen sees is not pretty.

In fact it's downright ugly, and Cohen says so, and What's Left? immediately set off a raucous hullabaloo on both sides of the Atlantic. Cohen's publisher, Fourth Estate, hasn't been able to keep up. The book was sent back for a second printing the week it came off the presses.

Cohen's case against

Cohen makes the case that the left entered the 21st century in a deep crisis from which it shows no sign of emerging. He spends 405 pages presenting his arguments about the nature of that crisis and its origins. The book is incendiary. It's also soberly-argued and assiduously buttressed by volumes of evidence.

Cohen begins by paying particularly close attention to the abysmal and rarely-investigated politics of the British "anti-war" leadership -- politics that are mirrored, incidentally, in the leadership of Canada's "anti-war" movement. From there, Cohen delves into the dank circumstances that were capable of producing the spectacle of avowed progressives apologizing for, making excuses for, and ultimately fellow-travelling with the far right, in the form of Islamists and dictators.

The 21st century began with a revolutionary left deeply resentful of the proletariat for its refusal to be led into socialist revolution, and a liberal left animated by a politics barely distinguishable from the 19th century bourgeois contempt for the working class. State socialism was a dead project, and the United States was the world's sole superpower. Anti-Americanism had become the left's substitute for real politics.

This strangely mutated left was a spoiled child, the heir to a legacy its liberal-left predecessors had built. The old-world empires had been swept away. Working people were living longer than Roman emperors. Throughout the developed world, women had the vote, and their rights in the workforce were protected.

Christianity was imploding, freedom of speech was universal, and gay people were finally being allowed to emerge as full-status citizens. Education was free. Marriage was a mere lifestyle choice. Ancient diseases that had routinely burst into plagues down through time had been eliminated. Europe, the 20th century's charnel house, was united and at peace with itself.

Liberals and leftists accomplished all this by holding fast to a standard proclaiming that what they expected for themselves, they demanded for all. But the corrosive acids of cultural relativism and identity politics were eating their way through that bedrock principle. Soon, the bonds of solidarity broke down, and no one owed a solemn duty of any kind to anyone else. "You couldn't have found a more lethal way to kill left-wing politics if you tried," Cohen writes.

Progress, as the left had always measured it, came to a standstill. Delusional theories, with sinister forces manipulating world events, replaced clear-headed analysis. "Zionists" conveniently replaced the mythical, shadowy, conniving Jews. These should have been tip-offs that things were about to get very, very strange.

A final harbinger came goose-stepping out of the fog of the 20th century's final decade, in one of Europe's last police states. In a re-enactment of its worst conduct from the 1930s, the left more or less lined up behind the British Conservative Prime Minister John Major when he opposed American-led efforts to intervene on behalf of the Bosnian victims of a Serbian genocide.

Then the left was confronted by a very real, global crisis. Islamist extremists declared a war to the death against everything the Left stood for, and the United Nations found itself tied in knots by a madhouse regime in Baghdad that had already slaughtered roughly a half-million of its citizens, and a million of its neighbours.

But American imperialism was entrenched in the left consciousness as the fount of all evil in the world, and by Sept. 11, 2001, the left had lost its capacity to imagine any other enemy. So it chose to go "berserk."

That's a rough summary of Nick Cohen's argument.

'Arguments have to be had'

Whatever else you might say about What's Left?, you'd have to be pig-ignorant or a liar to write it off as a right-wing diatribe -- although that hasn't stopped many of Cohen's critics. During a telephone conversation with him the other day, I was interested to know what Cohen thought about why this was so. And why all the fuss about his book?

"People don't like admitting that there are significant disagreements within the left. It breaks the air of moral superiority and makes them seem more fragile," he said. "So anyone who does disagree is immediately attacked, as though you can't be left wing and find fault, as though we are all united and there are no cracks in the armour. So you're anathematized as soon as you start talking out of it. But arguments have to be had."

And arguments there have been.

You could put What's Left? on a growing shelf of books that includes Paul Berman's seminal Terror and Liberalism, Thomas Cushman's essay collection A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, and Oliver Kamm's Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy (the title is a deliberate taunt).

But the broad public hasn't much noticed. Cohen wrote What's Left? for the explicit purpose of bringing the arguments out into the open. And he couldn't have done that properly without subjecting the "anti-war" movement -- which has come to characterize left politics globally -- to a proper forensic reconstruction.

"You've got the modern equivalent of a pamphlet war that's been going on for at least three years now," Cohen said. "But because the mainstream media haven't reported this, haven't covered this, people are a bit astonished. It's something very new to them. And I think that's why the book's doing so well, really."

'Contemptuous American unilateralism'

It's also why the Euston Manifesto, a fairly timid and general declaration of sturdy liberal-left principles that Cohen helped write last year, caused such a rumpus (I should admit here I happily signed the declaration, explaining my reasons in a Globe and Mail essay last summer). Within days of the declaration's release, the words Euston Manifesto scored hundreds of thousands of web hits, with praise and scorn piling on from the pages of The Hindu to The American Spectator and from The Guardian to Blueprint, the magazine of the U.S. Democratic Leadership Council. It is "a symptom of the dismal state of liberal life that a statement of the obvious produced by obscure men and women in a London pub could cause such a fuss," Cohen writes in the closing pages of What's Left?

As Cohen pointed out during our telephone interview, there is a debilitating tendency among people of the left to quickly turn the page, to cover their ears or otherwise bolt from any assertion or observation that might cause them to question their assumptions. It doesn't exactly help matters to suggest that they've been objectively pro-fascist in their opposition to the Anglo-American project in Iraq, and Cohen's book has been unfairly criticized for failing to engage with the countless people on the left who, for all the right reasons, opposed the Iraqi invasion (I should also admit I tend to include myself among them).

In truth, What's Left? is quite generous in its treatment of those who credited the "anti-war" position at its face value, or who were unconvinced of American motives and competence, or were reasonably fearful of the full weight of American military power being brought to bear upon Iraq. But Cohen does leave himself open to criticism that his book fails to sufficiently and deliberately reach out to those people.

Indeed, Cohen himself not long ago admitted to being fiercely skeptical about the American-led invasion of Afghanistan -- a campaign far more straightforward than the overthrow of the Iraqi Baathists. Months after the toppling of the Taliban, Cohen was still capable of writing in The New Statesman:

"American unilateralism is contemptuous of the rest of the world, and the rest of the world can't be blamed for responding in kind. If this is anti-Americanism, so be it...a depressingly convincing justification for anti-Americanism remains: that there is little about modern America to be for."

In his defence, Cohen told me: "I find it very hard, as a writer, to decide who should read a book. In the end, you can't write with one eye over your shoulder. In the end, if you think something is going wrong, you've got to look at it, marshal the arguments and then sort of get on with it and see who's interested."

Fair enough. And when we spoke, Cohen was quick to make it plain, as he does in What's Left?, that there's certainly no shame in being furious about the way the Iraqi occupation has been handled: "There are millions of good reasons for being highly critical about everything about Iraq."

Who's to blame?

Still, one criticism Cohen won't accept is the proposition that decent people of the left who actively supported military intervention to overthrow the Baathist tyranny -- also for all the right reasons -- should bear some burden of blame for what's gone wrong.

Cohen said that had he opposed the invasion, What's Left? likely wouldn't have been written much differently. But if Cohen knew then what he knows now, would he still have supported the invasion?

"Maybe I wouldn't. I don't know. But if you were to ask me, `Would you turn the clock back and put Saddam Hussein back in power?' I would find that very hard to say. If you were to have been given foresight at the time, and said, `Well look here, you see now what's going to happen,' then you'd also have to give the foresight to say, `This is what will happen if you leave Saddam Hussein in power.'"

And no one, not even Noam Chomsky, would claim such clairvoyance as to know where the world would be now if Iraq had been left to stew in its own Baathist juices.

Cohen is on rock-solid ground in the way he sets out how left orthodoxy on the Iraq invasion never managed to move beyond what was undeniably, and ironically -- however painful it is to admit it -- a massive campaign of protest against the overthrow one of the most foul tyrants of the 20th century. From the day the first bombs fell, the left was paralyzed by its fury.

It was what would happen after the invasion that mattered. Instead of coming to the aid of Iraqi democrats, Iraqi teachers, Iraqi feminists, trade unionists and socialists, the left -- in government and in the streets, in Europe, in North America and pretty much everywhere else -- abandoned its Iraqi comrades.

In the main, the left simply kept on protesting against George W. Bush and Tony Blair, whose few successes in Iraq could be tallied as defeats for the left, and vice-versa. On it went like this, long after the "War in Iraq" had become a counter-revolution with Baathists and Islamists slaughtering Iraqis by the tens of thousands, taking care to single out the Iraqi Left for annihilation.

"That's where it leads," Cohen told me. "Gradually that thread pulls and pulls and pulls, and the whole fabric of a political tradition starts to unravel. And that's the whole argument I make in my book."

'Not productive'

The key thread in the political tradition that Cohen has watched unravel is the duty of solidarity. That's the thing about the left tradition that Cohen keeps his eye on, and he's not especially optimistic about the progressive internationalism of his youth returning any time soon.

Despite what appears on the face of it to be a grand resurgence of the left in recent years -- the mass anti-war rallies and anti-globalization protests -- there is scant evidence that the left is shaping events, or is engaged in anything that points forward to the sort of future the Left once envisioned for the world.

"The outcome of all this protest on the left would seem likely (in Britain) to be a Tory government. And you've got a Tory prime minister in Canada right now. This is not productive," Cohen said. "As it is, it's not producing ideas that can inspire people to left-wing politics...I don't understand where these people think they're going to end up. They're all going to end up negating themselves, I think."

So what to do?

"All you can do is to put your twopenny worth in the argument. All I'm arguing for are the virtues of internationalism, and for listening to people from other countries who share your values, and even if you don't agree with them, treating them with some kind of respect.

"You've got to stick to the basic principles of solidarity."  [Tyee]