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. And there have been plenty of imitators since. Beyond the ultra-leftists who openly despise liberal democracy, there has always been a fringe of fellow travellers willing to provide soft support. Cohen deplores the failure of protestors on the March 2003 anti-war march to chant anti-Saddam slogans, but at least none of them were chanting for him. Compare that to the leftists of ’68, held up nostalgically by Cohen’s hero Paul Berman as paragons of progressive virtue, who chanted their devotion to the despotic Ho Chi Minh at every opportunity.
There is something additionally peculiar about the focus of Cohen’s argument. Although the totalitarian left has always been with us, it is probably less significant today as a political force than at any time in the past 100 years. Leninist and Stalinist groups that used to attract tens of thousands of supporters, infiltrating the Labour party and wielding real influence through the trade union movement, are today a broken force. The largest of them, the Socialist Workers party, is a mere 3,000-strong, and the Communist party of Britain has only around 900 members. They do not merit the attention lavished on them by Cohen and others on the pro-war left. Moreover, there is nothing remotely liberal about them. A book purporting to analyse the failures of the liberal-left has no place for a chapter devoted to Gerry Healy, cult leader of the long defunct Workers’ Revolutionary party.
But this is perhaps to miss the point. Although the bulk of Cohen’s book is dedicated to attacking those who glorify Baathism and Islamism, or at least prefer them to Bushism, its real target is those who seek to “rationalise the irrational” by dealing with Islamists and others as political phenomena rather than as simple manifestations of evil. This difference is crucial. If terrorism and extremism are influenced by politics, then it is possible to deal with them by a process of engagement—if not with the terrorists and extremists themselves, then certainly with those who might be susceptible to their propaganda. If, on the contrary, they are nothing more than violent pathologies, any attempt to accord them a rational explanation is akin to appeasement and likely to make the problem worse.
Cohen is in no doubt that he belongs to the latter camp, but it is far from clear that it is the liberal one, as he claims. His argument is constructed in ways designed to close down argument about what Islamism is and how to deal with it. Instead of maintaining our capacity for reflection and self-criticism—a unique strength of open societies—we must abandon these luxuries and confront evil on its own terms. Whether Cohen understands it or not, it is in the fearful politics of national security that the real seeds of totalitarianism usually lie.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real purpose of Cohen’s polemic is a deeply personal one. Almost everyone who changes their political position starts by claiming that they have remained true to their principles while their erstwhile comrades have betrayed them. In Cohen’s case, the assertion is unconvincing. His warnings about the perils of welfare dependency and comprehensive education suggest that his disenchantment with the left is about more than foreign policy, even if Iraq was the catalyst. In this he is certainly not alone. As his book was published, the ex-leftist and pro-war French intellectual André Glucksmann was announcing his support for Nicolas Sarkozy in the forthcoming presidential elections. Anyone aware of the origins of the neoconservative movement as “socialists for Nixon” will appreciate the significance. It is the pro-war left that is on the move, not the “liberal-left” Nick Cohen so forcefully condemns.