Inevitably, because it’s a difficult subject, people are responding angrily to What’s Left? perhaps before they have read it and had time to think their arguments through.
One charge, which comes up repeatedly, is I’m using the alliance between the far left and the Islamic right to blacken the good name of the decent Left. (A charge made forcibly by Michael Meadowcroft, the former liberal MP). To read his and other comments you would think that there was nothing else to the book. In fact, it is a history of how liberal and left-minded people turn their backs on the victims of totalitarian movements – particularly fascistic totalitarian movements. I look at and explain how Bosnia revealed the dark side of the pacifist European temperament and how and why Douglas Hurd and other liberal Tories appeased Serb nationalism. There’s a chapter on the strange and virtually forgotten story of how pacifists and communists ended up arguing against the British war effort during the Blitz. There’s even a chapter of how the intellectual history of Islamism can be traced back to the insane conspiracy theories developed in the furious ultra-Right reaction to the Enlightenment of the 18th century.
You would never guess it from what the critics are saying, but the story of the Stop the War coalition fills just half of one chapter in a 13-chapter book! Contrary to what Peter Oborne maintains, I go to great lengths to separate decent people from the scoundrels who lead them. I put their arguments as well as I can, and say they were right in all respects except one: they couldn’t support their comrades in Iraq once the war was over.
I actually anticipate the guilt by association charge in my final chapter which begins
A complaint about my argument could be that ‘you can always do this’. You can always discredit decent people by isolating the malevolent hangers-on who join them in upsurges of radicalism. These eruptions come once or twice in an average lifetime. Every thirty or forty years, a wave of protest that you can plausibly describe as ‘left wing’ in the terms of its day sweeps through the hearts of men and women. Each upsurge has its dark side but that does not negate the good it brings.
But I conclude that an air of phoniness hangs over our eruption of protest because
The best side of previous outbreaks of leftish passion was found in their concern for the underdog. You can see a hatred of sadistic authority running through my list of radical eruptions from the Enlightenment’s detestation of priests with the power to persecute to the Sixties generation’s confrontations with racists. Today’s upsurge stands in a dishonourable contrast. Where are the underdogs on whose behalf it is speaking? Answer comes there none, because to maintain the illusion that totalitarian movements would stop threatening their comfortable lives if only the ‘root cause’ of Western provocation was removed, the protestors of the rich world ignored the victims of the far right.
If anyone wants to take on that point, I’d be interested to hear their argument.
The Guardian/Observer Comment is Free website commissioned Oliver Kamm to reply to the critics. You can find his piece here, and in it are links to the criticisms of Meadowcroft, Oborne and others.