Hard News by Russell Brown

350

The Solipsistic Left

In this week's Listener, Simon Wilson has an interview with Nick Cohen about his new book What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, which asks, says Cohen in the interview "why people in the West who are thoroughly liberal will make excuses for and even openly support the extreme right - the misogyny, the homophobia, the anit-Semitism, the support for Adolf Hitler across large chunks of the Islamic fundamentalist world."

Crikey. Who exactly are these dreadful people, and do I know them? Let's back up a little ...

The book's intellectual wellspring is the Euston Manifesto, a statement crafted by Cohen and others to revive and unify the "democratic left". There is almost nothing in the text of the manifesto with which I disagree. It's a primer on secular liberalism. But I have a lot less time for the self-serving spirit in which the likes of Cohen present their ideas. In particular that "The Left" has lost its way, and they, the enlightened, must bear witness.

One of Cohen's signature pieces, The great liberal betrayal, did actually have the good grace to name some villains, rather than simply spewing generalities:

The Stop the War Coalition is dominated by the Socialist Workers Party, the most unscrupulous and unprincipled of the far-left sects. When the SWP takes over a cause, agendas are rigged, meetings are packed, and debate is suffocated. Everyone with experience of the left knows that the SWP is a totalitarian organisation both in theory and in practice, but they rarely say so in public, and nor do the liberal media. Yet the anti-war movement marked a new low, even by the standards of the SWP's grim record. The supposedly Marxist party allied itself with the Muslim Association of Britain, which supports sharia law, with all its difficulties with democracy, women and homosexuals. The unlovely couple then claimed to represent the millions who opposed the war, and those who marched under the slogan "Not in my name" did not go out of their way to contradict them.

Well, yes. But so what? The SWP has been hijacking other people's causes for decades; always cleverly running up placards du jour with its own red banner at the top. I can recall people on the poll tax marches of the late 1980s in Britain tearing off the tops of the placards to make it clear that the SWP didn't speak for them.

I wonder too if Cohen et al are as reconstructed as they like to think: they simply embrace a new sort of ogre. In another well-known piece, this one for The Observer, Cohen spoke up for the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, who was facing charges of inciting religious hatred. He generously grants that Fallaci was a "raging prime donna", but rather forgets to say that she was a deranged racist bigot, who claimed that Muslims were breeding "like rats" and would consume Europe. She had some pretty scary things to say about Jews and homosexuals too.

Indeed, Cohen and his friends have also given their time to some disgraceful bigots on the US conservative right. They seem guilty of something very similar to that of which they accuse others.

Oddly, Cohen came late to all this: he stridently opposed the US invasion of Afghanistan, and as recently as 2002 declared in the New Statesman that it was "right to be anti-American" (the Euston Manifesto specifically condemns anti-Americanism). But having undergone a sudden personal enlightenment, he set about castigating all about him for their acquiescence to tyranny.

I'm put in mind of some sort of Naomi Wolf-like mid-life crisis, in which Cohen and his chums generalise their personal journeys as if they apply to us all. Or perhaps it's the innate tendency of former Marxists to simply lurch to a new polar alignment.

Anyway, now that the Iraq war has turned out to have been a terrible idea, he's changed tack: it's not about the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq any more, but " how to prevent a sectarian bloodbath there." Isn't it a little late for that? And isn't it a bit rich to simply take a topic off the agenda when it gets embarrassing?

Anyone who has been reading Baghdad Burning since it first appeared will be more than familiar with the steady erosion of secularism described by its author, a young woman called Riverbend. It's not an endorsement of Saddam to observe that religious bigotry has flourished in Iraq since 2003, or to point out that anything resembling a peaceful democracy there will be governed by hardline Islamic political parties.

It's not some quisling betrayal to contemplate the near-disintegration of Iraqi society - four million displaced people - and wonder how the hell it came to this.

So, yes, I disagree with almost nothing in Cohen's manifesto. But until he and his chums discover a little more intellectual honesty, they can keep their smug little lectures to themselves.

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