Friday, February 10, 2012

Books: What's Left?

What's Left is Nick Cohen's polemic against the state of the left. I was a bit apprehensive coming to it. I'd consider myself on the left, even if I'm uninvolved. So criticisms of it are personal. On the other hand, because I am uninvolved, it is easy for me to pick and choose, ignoring bad things and people, rather than having to commit to actions and groups.

The jacket of the book doesn't help. On the front is a picture of a man wearing a suit, with a keffiyah covering his face, holding a peace symbol placard in one hand and tossing a grenade idly in the other. (The original hardback cover is better.) On the back are supportive quotes from Philip Hensher in the Spectator, Peter Oborne in the Observer, James Delingpole in the Mail on Sunday and Martin Amis in the Sunday Times. Not a set of commentators to inspire confidence.

Cohen's argument for how and why the left lost its way ranges from consumerist politics to Virginia Woolf, but it's mostly about the left's response to tyrants, and more specifically to Saddam Hussein.  Saddam Hussein was a monstrous tyrant; we all know this (or should do).  Just how bad he was might have passed people by - I certainly didn't have a clear idea.  Cohen reminds people of this without dwelling on it.  The first case in Cohen's thesis is Kanan Makiya, an Iraqi who in the 1980s wrote a devastating account of the brutality of the Iraqi regime.  He was a hero to the left when Western governments were ignoring Saddam's crimes.  Then the First Gulf War came and Makiya argued that the coalition should push on to Baghdad and overthrow the regime.  The left disowned him.  Saddam carried on murdering the people of Iraq.

Cohen asks: 
Even if the United States invaded Iraq just to get its hands on the country's oil, the result would still be better than Saddam Hussein.  The Iraqi regime was a totalitarian fascist regime.  Why didn't the left support its overthrow?
His answer is that the left has forgotten that there are worse things than liberal democracy. I would add, though Cohen doesn't, that there are worse things than war.  The left has lost the ability to criticize the bad its own governments do while supporting the good.  It is heading towards a manichean worldview where anything the West does is bad and anyone who opposes it can't be all bad.  As a result, the left is starting to support the far right (dictators and Islamists), both passively and actively.

How did this come about? The history of warfare and the left, according to Cohen, goes something like this. It started in the 1930s, with opposition to fascists in the Spanish Civil War. The left had some issues about war with Germany, but came good in the end. Then things were peaceful for 45 years, until the first Gulf War. Umm.

Instead of dwelling on events like, say, Vietnam, Cohen turns one of the left's criticisms on itself. It's a left-wing trope that for Western governments there are deserving and undeserving victims. Cohen suggests the same applies for the left. When Hussein was being supported by the West, Iraqis were deserving victims; after the First Gulf War they became undeserving victims. Pre-eminent among the deserving victims are Palestinians, oppressed by US-ally Israel.

When asked why he spends most of his time attacking the US and its allies, Chomsky has a simple answer: because as a citizen of the US he has more responsibility for its behaviour than for that of any other country. It's not that he doesn't care about the people of North Korea. I doubt he has a good word to say about the North Korean government, but he's not responsible for it, and he has very little control over it. As Chomsky points out, it didn't take a war to get the Indonesian military to withdraw from East Timor after 25 years and tens of thousands of deaths. It just took pressure from Indonesia's allies, like the US and Australia. Pressure like not actively supporting the murderous Indonesian military, for example.

There are even bigger problems with Cohen's argument. These are the very broad label of “fascist” and the tricky question of what is the left.

Cohen argues that the great virtue of the left used to be recognising and fighting fascism. For Cohen, the Iraqi regime, Al-Qaeda, Zimbabwe and presumably other organisations and regimes are “fascist”. Just like in the 30s, this justifies all means necessary, up to and including war. We have to fight Saddam Hussein and we have to fight Al-Qaeda, because they're fascists. I actually think the emotional reaction this is intended to create is ok, if lazy.

The less obvious challenge is this: in the 1930s, were people really arguing for military intervention in Spain, Italy or Germany? There's a difference between a civil war, defending one state against another and intervening militarily within a state. Italy and Germany had the will and the means to attack other countries. Saddam Hussein never attacked another country except when he thought it was ok with the US (thought wrongly, in the case of Kuwait).

The Iraqi regime certainly had a horrible ideology, as Al-Qaeda does. But they are different ideologies. In fact, they were conflicting ideologies. Al-Qaeda's goal of an Islamic Caliphate had no place for Baathist Iraq. By classing both as fascism, Cohen implies that the invasion of Iraq was also a battle against Al-Qaeda, a conflation that would make Blair and Bush propagandists proud. It's hardly a radical view that the invasion of Iraq helped Al-Qaeda. We've the authority of MI5 to support that view.

You could certainly argue the case that a stable, democratic Iraq will help fight Al-Qaeda. Cohen doesn't bother to do that. When he talks about “fighting” Al-Qaeda, it's actually not really clear what he means. In fact, he's very hazy on Al-Qaeda and “Islamism”. Is the military regime in Egypt justified to keep the Islamic Brotherhood in check? Should we be fighting various low-intensity but (inevitably) nasty wars in various countries in the world? These difficult questions aren't addressed.

The easiest criticism of the book is that the examples don't really represent “the left”. Here are two examples. Cohen lays into relativism, but I don't think I've ever actually met or read anyone who believes in it. He also highlights the SWP's role in the Stop the War protests. His criticisms of the party and George “I salute your indefatiguability” Galloway seem correct. Yet Cohen himself says that most people involved in protesting the war didn't care about the SWP. He doesn't go on to say that if opponents of the war were inspired by politicians, it was more moderate or respectable ones like Robin Cook and Clare Short. The SWP won a seat in parliament in 2004, before losing it again in 2009 , when they received 33,251 votes, an eighth of the votes the Green Party got.

Which is not to say Cohen doesn't get anything right. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his regime was probably the only good reason given for the invasion of Iraq. It's quite possible the anti-war movement ignored this. I still think the war was wrong, but I also think the left does not have a clear idea of how to deal with dictators. War is not supported except in exceptional cases, with strong international support. "Engagement" is sometimes supported, sometimes not. Sanctions are usually supported, but rarely effective.  It is entirely possible that different approaches are required for different cases, but I don't think I've ever seen a clear discussion of this.

To an extent the left has internalised the system of states and international institutions. This system makes a big a distinction between fighting to liberate Kuwaitis from the Iraqi Baath party and fighting to liberate Iraqis from the Iraqi Baath party. (Though it is certainly not the only distinction.) It should be hard for the left to attack the mendacity of states one minute and look to the UN to legitimise things the next. It's not wrong to go against “international opinion” if you're right.

Look for grand visions in the left and you'll probably be disappointed. Of course, this is because grand visions have disappointed. The left's lack of a cohesive vision is in part a tactic. Whether it is a good one is open for debate.

Blaming Cohen for using straw men and misrepresenting the left is so easy I started wondering “what does Cohen think of as 'the left'?” What is it he's lamenting the loss of? I went back to the definitions in the introduction. “The left” is defined with a conscious fuzziness - “you know it when you see it” - but notably it does specify that it is aligned with the trade unions. Trade unions crop up from time to time in the book, in a positive light. On the whole, though, they're not discussed. If they're not the elephant in the room, they are at least lurking just outside.

I think what Cohen is really lamenting is the loss of a left which:

  • is radical but still able to work within the system
  • has a cohesive organisation and political programme, but is not authoritarian
  • is committed
  • is linked to the working class, or at least the trade unions.
With those conditions in mind, it's easier to be sympathetic, but it doesn't make the book any better. You'll find little insight into the fall-out from the 60s & 70s counterculture, the decline of trade unions and class politics; the weight falls decisively on Iraq, Cohen's own moment of revelation. Perhaps he should have written a more personal book about his relationship with the left first, and then attempted this book.

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