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March 05, 2007

Brilliantly standing up to latter-day George Lansburys: What's Left? How liberals lost their way - Nick Cohen

Posted by Douglas Murray

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

A conservative friend recently said to me:

I can't see what's still left-wing about Nick Cohen. He seems to have become entirely right.
It's a charge which has become common. And not just of Cohen. Oliver Kamm has suffered this accusation. As has Christopher Hitchens. When Martin Amis recently said nasty things about Hezbollah, reactionaries in the Guardian and elsewhere accused him of conservative developments. David Aaronovitch has been hit with the charge, and even the political editor of the New Statesman, Martin Bright has (since his scholarly analysis of domestic extremism) been accused of links with shady forces not of the left.

But not only is the charge - in all these cases - inaccurate. It is analytically degrading. It is a shame when left-wing critics use the charge of a list to the right to punctuate a fall-out with an erstwhile comrade. But it is equally regrettable when the accusation comes from the right. Apart from anything else, it suggests that the right consider that they can have no allies on the left, that the only good leftist is an ex-leftist, and that the water is wider between a leftist with whom the right agrees than with an ex-leftist with whom the right agrees. It is not merely for ambitious ecumenical reasons that I hope this attitude can pass.

This brilliantly fluent, informed and informing book signals an important milestone in left-wing politics in Britain. But it is more important because it is a book about anti-totalitarian politics in general, and therefore something of which all the old political categories should approve.

Cohen rightly bucks some of the lazy lies of recent years. He uses the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's records of who supplied arms to Hussein's Iraq to remind readers (or tell many for the first time) what the media has failed to - that the US and UK provided negligible quantities of weaponry to the Hussein regime during its heyday, whilst France, Russia and China lavished such supplies on them. For the socialist movements who still parade under blithering banners about war-profiteering, it is also nice to be reminded that the Workers Revolutionary Party (of Corin and Vanessa Redgrave fame) received at least £20,000 from the thugs in Baghdad. And it is personally pleasing to be reminded that Ken Livingstone, who so often grandstands against political oppression, lauded the Ba'ath profiteer Gerry Healy at his funeral and claimed that the downfall of his party in a sordid sex-violence scandal had been brought about by MI5. It is good to recall that our capital city is still run by a man who believes our state services are enemies of the state, and that the enemies of the state are at our service.

There are nice take-downs of Chomsky, Foucault and many of the other thoughtless thinkers of the last few decades. And there is an especially good passage in the footsteps of Hitchens about the left's presumptions about Osama bin Laden after 9/11. Cohen writes:

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.
In many glitteringly brilliant passages, Cohen draws well placed lines in the sand.

Perhaps best of all is his narration of one of the British left's last major attempts to grapple with a totalitarian enemy. Cohen's description of the routing of George Lansbury at the Labour conference of 1935 is a gem. The silly and sentimental Lansbury is a perennially familiar figure in the Labour movement, still exemplified by the Bruce Kents and Tony Benn's who block our airwaves.

Lansbury's conference speech came after the choruses of "For he's a jolly good fellow" and included his self-indulgent insistence that:
If mine were the only voice in this conference, I would say, in the name of the faith I hold, the belief that God intends us to live peacefully and quietly with one another. If some people do not allow us to do so, I am ready to stand as the early Christians did and say, this is our faith, this is where we stand, and, if necessary, this is where we will die.
It took something to do what Bevin did next. During an all-out assault on the cuddly eager-martyr, Bevin reminded the audience of how long trade-unions would last under fascism, and mauled Lansbury's humble egomania by remarking:
It is placing the Executive and the Movement in an impossible position to be hawking your conscience round from body to body asking to be told what to do with it.
The delight in reading this narrative is only heightened by learning that this attack on her hero led the morally idiotic Virginia Woolf to burst into tears. Bevin did indeed, as Leonard Woolf put it,
[batter] the poor man to political death.
But Lansbury deserved it, and Bevin should be thanked for having helped save a movement, and a significant number of people, from a more than political death.

The example is clearly close to Cohen's heart, and he has absorbed its lessons beautifully. It is both right and insightful of him to state of the liberal intelligentsia, as he does here:
No phrase is dearer to our hearts than "there is good and bad on both sides". Our favourite colour is grey (or shades thereof). When presented with a choice between unacceptable alternatives - Hitler or carnage, Bush or Osama bin Laden, a capricious war or the perpetuation in power of Saddam Hussein - why shouldn't we be allowed to reject both without bullies accusing us of being Islamist or Baathist dupes?

I feel like a class traitor when I say it but the first lesson from the "heroic" age of the Left in the Thirties is that it never works like that in a conflict in which your own society is involved. You can be a critical friend of one side or another, a very critical friend as often as not, but you have to choose which side you are on, and those who don't usually end up as the biggest villains of all.

It says something about our political culture that such a passage can be described as "brave", but Cohen deserves thanks for saying this.

It would be very nearly true if I reeled out a cliché and said that I agreed with every word in this book. But this is only just not true. There is one word that I disagree with, and that word makes its final and most infuriating appearance on page 334 where Cohen describes the terrorists of Iraq's insurgency as being
so far to the right it was off the graph.
There is a considerable amount to argue here, and it should be pointed out here that this lazy use of the term "right" is not cancelled out, or mitigated, by what follows. It leaves a smear in its wake.

The Iraq insurgency is very much off the graph, but in truth it cannot be said whether it slipped off from the right or the left. The distinguishing features of the "insurgency" in Iraq are simply sadism, mass-murder and constantly surprising brutality. Those inspired by remnant Ba'athist ideology and those inspired by militant Shia ideology among others are hardly classifiable by any meaningful political terms, not least for the important reason that in significant ways it is not politics, and certainly not politics alone, that drives them. It is possible that Cohen is making the link between sadism and the right here, or it is possible that he is making the subliminal link between religious drive and right-wingery, but in either case the term is inaccurate as well as inappropriate.

What the people I mentioned in the first paragraph have in common is an awareness that Western liberalism, the hard-won culmination of centuries of bloody conflict is itself under threat from a new totalitarianism. They do not want to give it up, and are aware that it must not be condoned, and cannot be appeased. Cohen's book puts a marker down for what is called the left, just as others have put such markers down for what is called the right. The commonality of interest and outlook here suggests to me, though, that these terms of left and right are long-past being useful. It seems to me that a new political instinct exists today - one which spans the political spectrum. Cohen and I, for instance, would disagree on many things - but we can argue taxes and welfare reform another day.

In the meantime, this book is not just brave and brilliant, it is an incredible relief, and one of the most hopeful developments in British political discourse for some time.

Douglas Murray is the author of Neoconservatism: Why We Need It.

To read Richard D. North's take on What's Left?, see: 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.


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A good piece - thanks, Douglas.

Lansbury visited Hitler in pursuit of his peaceful aims. It wasn't just Chamberlain...

Posted by: Alex Deane at March 5, 2007 02:47 PM
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Thank you, Douglas - you pointed out the great paragraph for our times emphasising that regardless of criticism either way, one needs to know what side one is on. It's something I have discussed an awful lot over the last 2 weeks with American friends and family eager to know what I think about their president.

I am in agreement with Dominic about one thing (dominichilton.blogspot.com) which is that the authoritarian leanings and relativist nonsense of the left is nothing unusual or new, and the left/right distinction is possibly overplayed. Perhaps nothing more than a nice personal hook to hang the book's content?

Am loving the book, it provides a suitable diversion from the Central American rainforests I currently inhabit.

Posted by: Benjamin Fowler at March 10, 2007 05:54 PM
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