REVIEWED BY CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
Published: 21 January 2007
WHAT’S LEFT? How the Liberals Lost Their Way
by Nick Cohen
Fourth Estate £12.99 pp296
It is not until quite near the end of this mordant and instructive polemic that Nick Cohen comes right out with his own confession: “My instant reaction to the 9/11 attacks was that they were a nuisance that got in the way of more pressing concerns. Throughout the 1990s, I had been writing about the overweening power of big business and how it could corrupt democratic governments. I had lambasted new Labour for its love of conservative crime policies and attacks on civil liberties for years. Attacking Tony Blair was what I liked doing — what got me out of bed in the morning. Accepting that fascism is worse than western democracy, even western democracies governed by George W Bush and Tony Blair, sounds very easy in theory, but it is very difficult to do in practice when you are a habitual enemy of the status quo in your own country.”
He might have left it at this. After all, there are thousands and thousands of middle-aged lefties for whom their once-revolutionary “credentials” are all they have left to show for a lifetime of “activism”, and who could not face their friends — or, perhaps, their students — if they found themselves endorsing a war fought by British or American soldiers. (I myself remember repressing a twinge of annoyance at the idea that the assault on civilisation represented by the 9/11 attacks would drive my anti-Kissinger book from the front page where I still believe it belonged.) But Cohen goes further: “I wanted anything associated with Tony Blair to fail, because that would allow me to return to the easy life of attacking him.”
It is this sentence, and its implications, that make his book an exceptional and necessary one. Cohen has no problem with those who are upset about state-sponsored exaggerations of the causes of war, or furious about the bungled occupation of Iraq that has ensued. People who think this is the problem are not his problem. Here’s his problem: the people who would die before they would applaud the squaddies and grunts who removed hideous regimes from Afghanistan and Iraq, yet who happily describe Islamist video-butchers and suicide-murderers as a “resistance”. Those who do this are not “anti-war” at all, but are shadily taking the other side in a conflict where the moral and civilisational stakes are extremely high.
There are two possible sorts of “left” reaction to a dilemma like this. One is to seek out the democratic and secular forces in the Muslim world — the Kurdish revolutionaries in Iraq, say, or the Afghan women’s movement — and to offer them your solidarity whether Bush or Blair will do so or not. (Some things, as Orwell wrote, are true even if The Daily Telegraph says they are true.) The other is to say that globalisation is the main enemy, and that, therefore, any enemy of that enemy is a friend. In this twisted mental universe, even a medievalist jihad is better than no struggle at all. Cohen has decided to adopt the first position, and to anatomise and ridicule the second one. The result is an exemplary piece of political satire, in which the generally amusing and ironic tone should not lull you into ignoring the deadly seriousness of the argument.
It is not absolutely necessary to have a personal stake in a discussion like this, but it does help. Cohen started out trying to defend the honour of the left, and attempting to appeal to its better traditions. He swiftly found that this made him the target of the most hysterical slander, from people whose hatred of liberal democracy has a long and sordid ancestry. He then lowered his head, clenched his teeth, steered into the storm and embarked on the toughest struggle an old leftist can ever undertake: a confrontation with former comrades who suspect him of “selling out”. What probably began as a long essay has now metamorphosed into a full-scale settling of accounts.
It’s all here: from the pseudo-radicals who said there was nothing to choose between Nazi imperialism in Europe and British rule in India, through the supporters of the Hitler-Stalin pact, all the way to those who defended Slobodan Milosevic as a socialist and those who took, quite literally took, money from the bloody hands of Saddam Hussein. Just in the past decade or so, had this “anti-war” rabble had its way, we would have seen Kuwait stay part of Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo cleansed and annexed by “Greater” Serbia, and the Taliban retaining control of Afghanistan. You might think that such a record would lead its adherents to be dismissed as a silly and sinister fringe, but instead it is they who pose as the principled radicals and their opponents who are treated with unconcealed disdain in the universities and on the BBC.
This betrayal (because there is no other word for it) has been made possible in part by a degraded version of multiculturalism. The hard left has junked its historic secularism, to say nothing of its principles of equality for females and homosexuals, to make common cause with Muslim outfits some of which are associated in other countries with the extreme right. It has done this by the use of nonsense terms such as “Islamophobia”, which are designed to give the no-less nonsensical impression that Islam is some kind of persecuted ethnicity. But the vile attacks by Islamists on the Jews (Britain’s oldest minority) and on India (Britain’s most important democratic ally after the United States) show the truly reactionary and hateful character of the opportunist alliance between failed ex-Stalinists and fanatical theocrats. For Cohen, as for some others of us, this is no longer a difference of emphasis within the family of the left. It is the adamant line of division in a bitter fight against a new form of fascism, at home no less than abroad.
I think he is right to identify the opening of this crisis with the events in Bosnia and Kosovo, because in that instance it was America (pushed by the supposed “poodle” Blair) that used force to prevent the annihilation of a Muslim community. Those who opposed that rescue operation, and who yet denounce the fight against Bin-Ladenism and its allies as “targeting” Muslims, have given the game away and shown that they hate only Anglo-American policy, to a degree that results in blindness. Meanwhile, Israel is always and everywhere to be denounced (and not always wrongly) while the other product of British partition policy during 1947-48, the part-rogue and part-failed state named Pakistan, is never indicted in the same way for its numberless bigotries and aggressions. This is bad faith, and needs to be unmasked as such. Cohen’s book is an admirable example of self- criticism and self-examination, using intellectual honesty as a means of illuminating a much wider canvas.
Do not feel that you have to be a leftist or liberal to read it, because it engages with an argument that is crucial for all of us, and for our time.
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. What’s Left? is available at the Books First price of £11.99 (inc p&p) on 0870 165 8585