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February 06, 2007

Nick Cohen is the best of company at a drinks party - the trouble with What's Left? is that it is more like being stuck with Nick Cohen in the lift, argues Richard D. North: What's Left? How Liberals lost their way - Nick Cohen

Posted by Richard D. North

What's Left? How liberals lost their way
by Nick Cohen
Pp. 405. London: 4th Estate, 2007
Paperback, 12.99

Nick Cohen has written an invaluable guide to over a hundred years of left-of-centre posing and folly. It's a deep comfort to be told, in effect, that one had been right all along. Defending The Bomb and the US in the 1960s, and battling against trendy lefties in the 1970s and 1980s, were the right things to do.

One would think that the odds alone would have given the left a chance of being right sometimes. So Cohen is useful because he has tried to track down why they are so reliable in picking the wrong side. Until the second Iraq war,

The best side of previous outbreaks of leftish passion was found in their concern for the underdog.
His new discovery is that their pacifism, their anti-imperialism and their socialism usually put them on the wrong road to being any sort of help. So whilst he doesn't say so specifically (he's not an analytical type), Cohen's real argument is that being on the side of the angels doesn't make one useful to them.

Even picking the right enemy doesn't always help. He insists that being anti-fascist has not been an infallible guide to virtue (it blinds one to the wickedness of communist totalitarianism).

He goes way too far:

Now, overwhelmingly and everywhere, liberals and leftists are far more likely than conservatives to excuse fascistic governments and movements, with the exception of their native far-right parties.
He can certainly stand this up in the case of the Chomskian fringe. But is it quite fair, even of that fat swathe of infuriating lefties who see "freedom fighters" where the right sees terrorists? As he says, the left is likely to seek to understand why people might become suicide bombers. But why wouldn't they? Why shouldn't the left remember that worms who turn may indeed believe they have been trodden on?

Anyway, anti-fascism is a compass Cohen sticks with, as we all do. This allows one to assess extreme political Islamism by running down the items on the fascist checklist. And then it enjoins on one the duty of excommunication. Liberalism and practicality dictate that we all cut one another a lot of slack, but we can get our heads round the idea that we whack fascists wherever we can.

A word on style. I can't think of anyone I'd rather run into at a drinks party than Cohen, and reading his journalism is very like those encounters. But reading his book is more like being stuck in a lift with the man, and he hasn't quite adjusted his tone for the new and claustrophobic book-length environment.

Besides, he leaves one wondering why he hasn't gone the extra mile. Why hasn't he come over to the right? Plenty of people have made the journey before him. Even in his own generation, there is quite a long list. David Aaronovitch, Stephen Pollard and Christopher Hitchens are ex-lefties who make wide-ranging cases for at least parts of the neo-conservative agenda. Oliver Kamm did it (more tidily and killingly than Cohen) right here in his Anti-Totalitarianism.

The answer may be that Cohen still thinks that the right is fundamentally a bit nasty and that niceness still resides with the left. In what have become famous passages, he describes his inculcation to left-wing values (the politics of the boycott) at his mother's knee. He also claims that his view hasn't changed: it's the left that has abandoned its traditions. This sits uneasily with his new assessment that the left was never knowingly right.

Cohen may hope that he can stay a lefty because he's only angry about foreign policy. But he is too honest for that. He readily concedes that capitalism has won the economic argument as well. He doesn't discuss how societies should interfere in the market and there are some signs that he has so little experience of conservative thought that he thinks there really are lots of free market purists out there and that they are influential. I doubt Cohen has seriously grappled with any of that.

There are other signs that Cohen is clinging to the wreckage for fear of having to think. The most obvious is that it would be an abandonment too far for him to admit that Tony Blair's understanding of nearly every social and economic issue is sharper and more useful than has been managed by any previous Labour prime minister. Indeed, Cohen is most famous for his exhilarating critiques of New Labour's Third Way. You have the feeling he's not going to change sides on that battle just because he has honestly conceded that he was wrong about foreign affairs for a while after 9/11.

And whilst he doesn't go on about them much, he really hates corporations. Granted that he also thinks greenery matters (but shows no sign of having thought about such matters), he is really quite close to the attitudes of a George Monbiot.

One plausible problem for him is that if his devotion to the Bush/Blair war brought him rightwards, he'd have the same fight all over again. In his book, Malcolm Rifkind and Douglas Hurd are nearly as awful as the Stop the War Coalition and George Galloway. And Hurd, for Cohen, is a nasty profiteer with it.

Of course, the really big problem with Cohen's thesis is that Iraq may be the first case where the left was right. Stopped clocks, and all that. Maybe intervening against Saddam was bound to fail, even done well. This book is about what side we should be on, but the real problem is how to get the result.

Nick Cohen has stayed true to his youthful self. He has met brave leftist Iraqis and decided that what they want doing, ought to be done. He has subcontracted to them the detection of the fascism of the day. In doing so, he may have picked rightly. He also seems to have picked haphazardly. The upshot is that there is no comfort in this book for those of us who supported and support the war. Knowing why the Left is unlikely to point us toward good policy doesn't get us any nearer to knowing what good policy might be.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence, Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world and the just published Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.


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