Nick Cohen is right to criticise leftists for tolerating tyrants, but haven't parts of the left always been illiberal?by David Clark / March 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
In the past few weeks it has been hard to avoid the arguments put by Nick Cohen in his book What’s Left?: How Liberals Lost Their Way about what the opposition to the Iraq war and the wider war on terror reveal about the condition of the modern left. The conclusions Cohen arrives at are unsparingly critical and deeply pessimistic. Robbed of its historic purpose by the defeats of the 1980s, much of the “liberal-left” (Cohen’s cover-all term for every shade of left opinion) has experienced a “dark liberation” from responsible politics and opted for a self-indulgent oppositionism which at best betrays its most noble aspirations and at worst has turned it into an active accomplice of the authoritarian right, both secular and clerical. In short, the liberal-left is morally and politically bankrupt.
Cohen is right that the doctrine that my enemy’s enemy is my friend has led sections of the left to some truly grotesque conclusions. One was that the great crime committed in the Balkans in the 1990s was not the ethnic slaughter inflicted by Serb paramilitaries but the efforts of western governments to stop it. Another was the transformation of Saddam Hussein from a blood-soaked tyrant into a noble victim of American imperialism. Cohen’s book is at its best when exposing these absurdities, nowhere more so than in his demolition of George Galloway’s attempts to explain away his toadying to Saddam.
If Cohen is right that certain leftists are prepared to tolerate or even support totalitarian movements and ideas in the service of anti-imperialism, it is his assertion that this is symptomatic of a new and deep-rooted malaise on the liberal-left that is wrong. It is certainly not new. As Cohen describes his disillusionment at discovering that the left is not, as he once thought, a “happy family” composed of essentially “decent people,” he sounds like a befuddled communist who has only just been told about Khrushchev’s secret speech. He is struggling to come to terms with what the rest of us have known all along.
The left embraces a broad spectrum of opinion, and the totalitarian personality has been present within its ranks from the start. Gracchus Babeuf and the Conspiracy of Equals anticipated Pol Pot by almost two centuries with their plan to create the perfect society through the purifying effect of mass murder.…