Where did it go wrong?
What's Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way - Nick Cohen
Member Name: Mauri
What's Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way - Nick Cohen
Advantages: Well argued and an easy read
Disadvantages: Might not be for everyone
I’ve always considered myself belonging to the left of the political spectrum. Ever since my student days supporting the miners in the 80’s and the anti-racist anti-apartheid campaigns through to being a trade unionist I have always shared a leftist liberal outlook. It is only recently that I find myself at odds with many of my fellow liberals over the prevailing attitudes that have come to be accepted by most as the ‘liberal stance’ on various issues such as the war in Iraq, Islamic extremism, terrorism and Palestine.
Cohen tries to highlight the paradox in recent liberal thinking seen by the opposition to the war in Iraq. On February 15, 2003 millions of people around Europe many of whom would consider themselves politically Left wing marched to oppose a war that was going to bring down a fascist regime. People in Italy, Spain, Greece and Germany demonstrated despite their own relatively recent, traumatic experiences under fascist dictatorships. Clearly the opposition was more complex than that and the disputed legality of the war was also a factor but in essence the protesters were opposing the removal of Saddam. Once the invasion had occurred there were even more worrying developments in the Left’s response. Whatever anyone thought of the invasion the political structure post-Saddam was albeit imperfect a democratic one, more than nine million Iraqis voted in free elections some risking their lived to do so and yet despite pleas by many Iraqis left wingers political activists in the liberal West abandoned their ideological comrades, made excuses for the ‘insurgents’ (or more accurately terrorists) who were in part supported by of oppressive middle eastern dictatorships such as Iran and Syria and for the larger part were made up of Baathist supporters of Saddam. The thinking seemed to be that any ideological enemy of America however bad they were had some moral and political justification is murdering innocent Iraqis and trying defeat the beginnings of a representative democracy in the new Iraq.
According to Cohen this muddled thinking on the part of the liberal left didn’t start with Iraq it goes back further even in Afghanistan the opposition led by lefty liberals to a UN sanctioned US/British invasion seemed strange since target this time were the Taliban the most undemocratic, totalitarian abusers of human rights in recent years. The fact that the Taliban brutally oppressed women not allowing them even the basic right to schooling seemed to be glossed over by the liberal left commentators who were more worried about the spectre of US imperialism than the everyday conditions of men women and children on the ground. Even after 9/11 the democratic left, the "herd of independent minds", was unable to dissociate from (mainly extreme left/extreme islamist) apologists for the atrocity. The implication was that the US had it coming.
Nick Cohen also expresses these concerns in this book stating that the 9/11 attacks
"Were a nuisance that got in the way of more pressing concerns. Accepting that fascism is worse than Western democracy, even Western democracies governed by George W. Bush and Tony Blair, sounds 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."
This of course in part illustrates an age old problem with any anti authoritarian movement and one faced by the left in Britain after the fall of the Conservative government in 1997. The left is more comfortable in opposition countering the rule of the state rather then being part of its machinations. Inevitably many of the liberal left when Labour came to power found themselves uncomfortable with the idea that they were now part of the very authorities that instinctively they have always opposed. That is not to say that New Labour represents many people’s idea of socialism but nevertheless many left wingers seems to have abandoned their political allegiance and gone over to more marginal movements such as the environmental or fair trade lobbies.
‘What’s Left’ is a considered and intelligent study of the shift in political stance by the Left since the Second World War. It ask the question why do some western liberal leftists so hate their own governments that
“they ended up making common cause with most reactionary elements in the Islamic world”.
Cohen re-examines the whole idea of what it is to be part of the left and looks back at how his attitudes and the movement have been formed over the years. The events of 9/11 and its aftermath seem to have been a pivotal moment in formulating his thesis but the roots of disillusionment and confusion go back further than this. The book makes uncomfortable reading for those who consider themselves part of the wider liberal movement and this might explain why the book has received such hostile and unwarranted criticism by some commentators. The fact that few have attempted to engage Cohen in debate over the issues in itself tends to prove him right. As Paul Anderson of Tribune points out about Iraq
“Regardless of what you thought about the rights and wrongs of the war, what should matter for the left now, with Saddam overthrown and Iraq on the verge of civil war, is how to prevent a sectarian bloodbath there – not continuing a self-indulgent debate about the rights and wrongs of the decision to invade.”
No one should get the idea that Cohen is an apologist for Bush and Blair they come in for their share of criticism in the book, as does US foreign policy in general but he does legitimately ask
“Why is it that apologies for a militant Islam, which stands for everything the liberal left is against, come from the liberal left?" and states "Overwhelmingly and everywhere, liberals and leftists are far more likely than conservatives to excuse fascistic governments and movements, with the exception of their native far-right parties.”
Cohen draws heavily on personal experience to make his points. He is a lifelong friend of Iraqi and Kurdish democrats and trade unionists that were terribly persecuted and often imprisoned tortured and killed under Saddam. These Iraqis welcomed the overthrow of the dictatorship and had been calling for the outside world to help for years, the fact that the US was in the end the means for this didn’t matter to them. Once Saddam was removed and these same Iraqis were trying to establish democratic unions and generally support the establishment of a new Iraq they were not only attacked by the so called insurgents who were intent on destroying any semblance of Iraqi self determination but also they were ignored and abandoned by their one would think natural supporters amongst the liberal western intelligentsia.
Cohen had realised that any invasion of Iraqi under those circumstances would encounter criticism and opposition but he was shocked by some on the left who seemed to support the ‘market bombers’ of the self-proclaimed Iraqi ‘resistance’. John Pilger veteran leftie journalist and scourge of the US went as far as calling the interim Iraqi government a ‘Vichy’ regime and hoped the Iraqi ‘resistance’ would prevail.
Cohen further illustrates his point when he uses the story an Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya, who in 1989 anonymously published “The Republic of Fear”. This was the first time anyone had described how bad Saddam Hussein's Iraq was. Iraq quickly became a Leftist cause, commentators on the left such as Tariq Ali made documentaries denouncing the brutality of Saddam, Harold Pinter wrote plays on the subject and far left Labour MP’s called Saddam a fascist. When Iraq invaded Kuwait Makiya became famous and his book sold widely. The Western leaders jumped on the bandwagon and Saddam was denounced as the Middle Eastern Hitler. However the Left’s response became contradictory. Makiya seeing US action in Kuwait against Saddam as an opportunity to rid Iraq of the dictator supported the invasion in 1991 and his left wing friends including Tariq Ali and Edward Said amongst others promptly turned him on.
Further evidence is sited by the lefts response to the conflict in Bosnia. Many on the left were in denial about the massacres of thousands of Bosnians by the Serbs. Again leading leftist thinker such as Tariq Ali, Arundhati Roy, Harold Pinter (who served on the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic) and Noam Chomsky were prepared to believe in conspiracy theories that denied that 8000 men and boys were slaughtered in Srebrenica. The problem yet again was that the US supported the Bosnian cause, if the US had supported Serbia then argues Cohen the Left would have been pro Bosnia.
It seems to Cohen that people who you will speak vociferously about even the slightest sexist or racist behaviour will at the same time refuse to condem or confront ultra-reactionary movements that embody everything they should hate. Cohen asks how come people whose beliefs should lead them to speak out against extreme Islamism and jihadism consider their own democratic governments as being worse. There is no shortage of articles written by left wing commentators decrying Tony Blair as a liar (which he may well be) and a war criminal and yet at the same time these same commentators are making excuses for Hassan Nasrallah the Hezbollah leader who is clearly anti-semitic.
I find myself agreeing with most of Cohen’s thesis although sometimes his extrapolation of cause and effect is a little fanciful in order to emphasise his point. But this is excusable in a piece of work that is supposed to make people think, ask questions and initiate a much-needed debate.
Cohen seems to have eloquently put a case that needed to be made on behalf of those us who have always considered ourselves liberal and were certainly not fans of imperialism or US policy but who still could not come to terms with apparently abandoning long held beliefs simply to follow what seems to be a narrow anti US agenda.
This book does make uncomfortable reading (or should do!) for anyone who attests to be ‘liberal’ and hold principles of freedom, human rights and democracy close to their hearts and I hope it does initiate some soul searching.
‘What’s Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way’ in Hardcover (400 pages) published by Fourth Estate (ISBN-10: 0007229690) is availble from Amazon for £7.79 (+p&p) at the time this review was written.
© Mauri 2007
Summary: A personal critique of how the Left has lost its way