3 August 2005

7/7 - 5

I’m late on this, but what the hell. On Monday, Peter Wilby, former editor of the New Statesman, had an extraordinary column in the Guardian’s Media section (click here) ruminating on the reasons some left-wing journalists fall out with the left consensus and adopt stances that most on the left consider right-wing. His particular target was his friend and one-time employee Nick Cohen, of whom he wrote:
What are we to make of Nick Cohen, the most uncompromising left-wing columnist in the British press for most of the past decade? How far right is he going? He cheered the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq and, despite all that has happened and all that has been revealed since, continues to do so. He has also questioned harshly the motives of the anti-war movement.
Cohen, wrote Wilby, was following a similar path to Christopher Hitchens, “another jewel in the left-wing crown, who, since September 11 2001, has stood shoulder to shoulder with the American neocons”. Wilby went on:
What causes left-wing commentators to slip their moorings in their 40s? Perhaps some just follow the cliché that if you are not a socialist up to 40, you have no heart and, if you are still one after 40, you have no head. Others find that property ownership or parenthood make them right-wing. Others again get mugged or burgled. I suspect a good many just want more income; after all, there are only a few left-of-centre newspapers and magazines and most of them pay badly, or not at all.

But I fear there is another reason. Left-wing commentators get bored. The past 25 years have not been a fertile period for ideas on the left, and new Labour has induced further timidity, lest bold thinking reawaken Tory devils. Though it now shows signs of fading, the intellectual ferment of our age has been on the right — which, to take just one example, has given far more intelligent consideration to the legalisation of drugs. Leftwing writers and publications are often accused of being too predictable, and the charge has some justice to it.
Norman Geras had a go at this nonsense (click here), making some sound points with which I agree entirely:
[Wilby] gives not so much as a hint of any consciousness of a left broad enough to embrace more than one view about the Iraq war, foreign policy, bringing down oppressive tyrannies, ending genocides in progress, humanitarian intervention, that sort of thing. On the contrary, Wilby's left is delineated in terms of notions like 'betrayal' and 'deserting the cause'. He should look around him a bit. Beyond Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen — for all their deserved prominence — he will find there are quite a few people still on the left thinking differently from him, not because they're bored but just because they think, and because they didn't spend whatever time they did spend in acquiring left values in order to end up marching to the greater benefit of one foul dictatorship or another.
But I think Geras is wrong in one key respect. Wilby’s simplistic conception of “the left” as a monolithic entity with no room for dissenting views on the Iraq war, foreign policy and so on is not eccentric: it is the mindset of most people on the British left. If it is contested, it is only at the margins. The left consensus at present is precisely that capitalism and American imperialism are the root causes of all evils in the world, that the war to topple Saddam Hussein was simply criminal, that the Cohens and Hitchenses and Gerases are renegades.

There is of course reason to hope that this might change. The experience of 7/7 has rocked the consensus – even my most fervent Stop the War Coalition friends admit that the bombings were not simply the result of the Iraq war – and there is a minority on the left (Labour Friends of Iraq and so on) that has challenged the easy assumptions of Wilbyism. But there is still a very long way to go.

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