To begin, I’ll declare an interest: the journalist Nick Cohen is a friend, and in his new book, What’s Left? How the Liberals Lost Their Way, he makes several references to this blog and thanks me for helping him. (In fact all I did was drink several pints of beer with him, send him a few documents and read a couple of chapters, but it’s always pleasant to be appreciated.) I’m looking forward eagerly to his launch party the week after next.
So it would be easy to dismiss as mutual backscratching my broad agreement with the argument of his book, that since 9/11 a large section of the British left has been so blinded by its anti-Americanism that it has embraced the worst sort of Islamist reaction. But it isn’t backscratching. I’ve been saying much the same for as long as he has – though with little of his rhetorical force or skill – and I’d recommend his book had I never met him. It’s a brilliant excoriating polemic that should be read by everyone on the left.
Not that I think he’s right about everything. As others have pointed out, he’s got a terminology problem that runs through the book. I don’t think “liberal-left” works as “a cover-all term for every shade of left opinion”, nor is “liberals” synonymous for me with “the middle-class left”. Unlike him, I opposed the war against Saddam in 2003 on the grounds that it was likely to be protracted and bloody and that the US had no credible plans for what happened afterwards. I don’t think Cohen recognises how many people who were against the war in 2003 also found the pro-Saddam posturing of George Galloway and the Socialist Workers Party utterly disgusting and distrusted the alliance with reactionary Islamists that Galloway and the SWP created in the Stop the War Coalition.
Still, Cohen’s central thesis is absolutely to the point. Most opponents of the war who did not share the “revolutionary defeatism” of Galloway and the SWP or the reactionary politics of their Islamist allies turned a blind eye to them. They certainly did nothing to distance themselves publicly – let alone anything to seize leadership of the anti-war movement.
And since 2003 the obsession of most people on the non-Leninist left who opposed the war – I know there are honourable exceptions – has simply been to get their own back on George Bush and Tony Blair for starting it. For the parochial self-righteous left, the important thing about the growing sectarian strife in Iraq is not that it threatens to turn into a full-scale civil war that then engulfs the whole Middle East. It is that it shows Bush and Blair were wrong three years ago — just as we said they were. Pinning the blame on Bush and Blair and demonstrating we were right matters more than working out how best to support the Iraqi people against the murderous militias terrorising their country. It's comfortable collective political narcissism, no more.
There are lots of good things in What’s Left? apart from the core argument about the left, 9/11 and Iraq – among them an excursion into the left in the 1930s and the Communist Party’s defeatism during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, a pointed assault on the idiocies of postmodernism and a chilling account of how the Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party took money from Saddam (and praised him to the skies) in return for spying on Iraqi dissidents in Britain. I don’t think he captures just how wrong the left consensus was in the 1930s or how the WRP’s relationship with Saddam was only a little more compromised than that of other Leninist sects with other third world dictators, but these are minor points. This is extended pamphleteering at its best.