What's Left, by Nick Cohen

Cynics and simple minds
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The Independent Culture

Nick Cohen is one of a number of prominent left-leaning journalists whose support for the ousting of Saddam Hussein has led them into questioning pretty much everything that the liberal left has ever espoused. The contents of What's Left suggest that in Cohen's case at least, such a re-examination was long overdue.

Cohen is keen, in the first instance, to demolish the idea that the left is, basically, a "happy family", which believes itself to be entirely populated with "decent people". It is entirely healthy that he has disabused himself of this weird delusion, and has joined the rest of the world in observing that the left is widely characterised, with much accuracy, by its intractable internal contradictions, its comic and stultifying self-righteousness, its sulky, tiresome, embarrassing, didacticism, its dull, stubborn, sentimental "comrades", and its simple-minded adoration of a played-out old speech that it has heard a hundred times before.

But heavens, he makes heavy weather of his revelation. Cohen argues that "a theme of this book is that ideas on the fringe are worth examining". Examine them he does. Every moment of shameful, laughable loony-left extremity is dug up, no matter how unrepresentative and bizarre. Very few people will read these passages in the book with a sense that the scales are dropping from their eyes, but if even a few do, then that's something.

There's George Galloway's amazing encounter with "indefatigable" Saddam, Living Marxism's refutation of the existence of concentration camps in Serbia entirely because some barbed wire was nailed to the "wrong" side of a post in a single photograph, Robert Fisk's implied suggestion that it is OK for any Muslim to beat any westerner to a pulp (just as it was perfectly reasonable for Afghanis to have done this to him), and Naomi Wolf's predictably self-important assertion that the threat of getting funny looks at dinner parties should be solemnly weighed up in the construction of one's moral compass.

There's a re-run of the ignominious history of Gerry Healy's repulsive and exploitative Workers Revolutionary Party, an examination of the Socialist Workers' Party's parasitic, hectoring strategy of muscling in on any public demonstration and tainting it with their cringe-making, simple-minded slogans, and, just in case no one was aware of it, a bracing waltz through Stalin-worship, pre WW2 appeasement, and middle-class Marxist frustration that the dumb workers didn't feel quite desperate enough to fix them up with a thrilling revolution. Yet, easy as it is to dismiss this roll-call of grotequerie as too marginal or too discredited to have much impact on the matter in hand - which is working out what on earth the left does and should stand for now - it has to be admitted that Cohen's dogged pursuit of the many crimes and misdemeanours of the left do eventually pile up into a useful bulwark for his central argument.

Cohen believes with passion that the one thing international leftists should stand against is totalitarianism, and all the bitter examples he offers of leftist madness illustrate how the left has always been at its most morally bankrupt at the times when it either simply omits to do this, or even more appallingly embraces totalitarian mindsets itself. He is absolutely correct in this analysis.

Yet while anti-totalitarianism may seem like a basic stance that is unassailable in its rectitude, Cohen is himself overly ideological in his belief that such a credo can be applied with simplicity at all times. Cohen, rightly, argues that the form of totalitarianism that most threatens the liberal democratic world today is political Islam. He argues, also rightly, that Saddam's totalitarianism was entirely evil and repugnant.

Yet the Iraq conundrum was that there were terrible dangers in conflating these different threats into a simple argument for invasion. Cohen quotes a number of times the fundamentalist observation that "we love death as you love life". It's one thing to note that this is frightening nihilism indeed, and quite another to decide that the sensible thing is to carve out an enormous great theatre in which the slogan can be pursued with anarchic enthusiasm.

Cohen is right to take issue with the failure of the left adequately to pursue Saddam - most shamefully of all in the closing stages of the first Gulf War. But he's wrong to contend that amongst all the cowardly, hypocritical, contradictory and knee-jerk arguments against the present invasion, there were no wise or sensible reasons for caution.

Cohen is back on more solid ground when he contends with equal passion that the one thing international leftists should stand in favour of is liberal democracy, and he is rightly troubled by the antics of the left when they indulge in the wholesale denigration of western values - the virulent anti-Americanism, the baby-with-the-bathwater anti-capitalism, and the enemy's-enemy-is-my-friend tendencies that have been so typical in recent years.

He is particularly scathing about the left's obsessive focus on the Palestine issue, when China, Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Congo or North Korea provide far more graphic examples of cruelty, subjugation, horror abuse and misery. His tentative answer to the question is that the left is afflicted, among other collective personality disorders, by narcissism, and that Freud's narcissism of small differences compels the strident left to criticise most fiercely the populations that it perceives to be most like itself (but not so nice).

Once more, it is all too true, and in its most extreme form, this attitude is deeply depressing and disheartening. Yet, if the west does aim to export liberal democracy around the world, then it is important that liberal democracy is seen as something that oppressed peoples can aspire to. The most soul-destroying consequence of the failure to establish a two-state solution in Israel is that a population that once did want secular democracy is becoming more fundamentalist by the day.

Still, Cohen is right again to cavil at the left's obstreperous negativity about its own society, which he describes as "the parochialism of small minds who can't get beyond their hatred of injustice at home". There's a lovely passage in which Cohen imagines someone describing the positive aspects of the future as it has now generally come to pass in western democracies to liberal-left radicals of the past. "We love the sound of your future," your audience cries. "It has everything we have always wanted." "So it has," you reply. "Which is why you will hate it." If you are on the left and unable to see the truth and the humour in this observation, then you'll hate What's Left as well. Which is a shame for you, because Cohen's re-evaluation of everything that has ever animated his vastly political being says many, many things that really do need to be said.