Sparks, flashes and damp squibs

Andrew Coates reviews Nick Cohen's What's left? How liberals lost their way (Fourth Estate, 2007, pp400, £12.99)

A good polemic hits hard and sends off sparks and Nick Cohen's What's left? has grander ambitions than most. He wishes to condemn today's left and liberal opponents of the invasion and occupation of Iraq en bloc.

In between Cohen links the murderous legacy of Stalinism, the bullies of the Workers Revolutionary Party, the 'wilderness of postmodernism', and the anti-globalisation campaigns' 'parochialism'. He finds the "stench of death" rising from Respect and the Stop the War Coalition, which have "gazed in the face of a global fascist movement [jihadist islamism], shrugged and turned away".

Like his Oliver Kamm the author discovers the merits of American neo-conservative foreign policy. It is a means to uphold universal human rights. Cohen singles out Marxism - for its attraction to the "utopian, the irreconcilable, the hate-filled and the grandiose". He concludes that "there also needs to be a clean break with totalitarians, both totalitarian regimes abroad and the totalitarian left - if it still a left - at home" (p361).

It is as a sweeping history of the 20th century left, and liberals (in his sense of middle-class progressives), that What's left? first sticks in the craw. Cohen's account of Stalinism and totalitarianism is callow. The intelligentsia's fellow-travelling and the record of the British Communist Party during the 1930s overshadow his account - the "intellectual left swallowed outright lies" in its admiration of Russia. He claims that Trotskyist opponents of the Georgian dictator only believed that the wrong man (that is, not Trotsky) was in charge of the Soviet Union. Appeasers, numerous in his view in France, were socialist dupes out of sentimentality - as if the legacy of World War I, millions upon millions dead, had nothing to with their wish to avoid future slaughters. As they say: hindsight is such a blessing for those gifted with it.

Above all Cohen skips over the strongly democratic strain on the left, including Marxists, intellectual or not, which was appalled at the crushing of democracy in Soviet Russia and consistently opposed fascism. Bertrand Russell's early critical USSR reports had an impact on the left from the early 20s onwards. The Independent Labour Party contained many hostile to Stalinism from the beginning, and assisted their comrades, in, for example, Austria, when Dollfuss attacked them. Continental Marxists and social democrats, such as these Austrians, had never accepted any kind of authoritarian rule. Reflecting the attitude of the depths of the movement, the Marxian Victor Serge, who landed in the camps for his independence, wrote in 1933 his 'profession of faith'. That is, his belief in the "defence of man: respect for the rights of every man, even class enemies"; "defence of truth"; "defence of thought". Democratic Marxism was based on "freedom of thought, the root of these conditions".1

The stem of Cohen's argument is that Marxist-influenced intellectuals (though not exclusively them) were rather pleased at seeing the masses shaped by such wise shepherds as Stalin. Others, such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, acted from an instinctive opposition to reform, an "emotional need", blinding them to 'official communist' and later Maoist excess. In doing so they were expressing contempt for the masses. They were driven by a politics of aesthetic snobbery, lampooned by John Carey, wishing to both isolate their high culture from the unwashed and to give the populace a good drubbing.

Again, this argument-by-bald-assertion can be tempered by reading de Beauvoir's autobiographical writings, Such as La force des choses (1963), describing the post-war questioning of Stalinist tyrannies, sympathy for the people, which the couple shared with Camus. It would be exhausting to go on much further. But to imagine that amongst those from a political current, Marxism, or other forms of democratic socialism, which grew with, and influenced the labour movement, nobody had grasped the "truth about totalitarianism" (that is, Stalinism) until Albert Camus, George Orwell, Hannah Arendt and Robert Conquest came along with a penetrating gaze (p29) is not only factually wrong, but insulting. There is one further distortion here, Hannah Arendt - whom no-one can easily claim for his or her side - was heavily influenced by the Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, for her theory that the roots of totalitarianism lay entangled with imperialism. As well as Rosa's sterling defence of universal liberty.2 And so it continues.

The description of Saddam Hussain's Iraq is, by contrast, solid and moving. Kan Makiya's Republic of fear and his Cruelty and silence were, in the 90s, eye-openers. That the New Left Review crowd abandoned the Iraqi critic is hardly surprising. Some of them (and, I should add, a few of those whom Cohen admires were at one time in that circle) are remote from the democratic working class movement, with a matching influence to boot. That Tariq Ali has returned to the Fanonite admiration of the 'violence of the oppressed' (in this case issuing from the 'green' islamist east) of his youth merits every bitter word Cohen utters.

Yet here too he over-eggs the pudding by side-swipes at French 'theorists'. One of the major theorists, Jacques Derrida, was a doughty defender of human rights. It is easy to make fun of the convoluted translations of his concepts. However, born in north Africa, Derrida took a stand against terrorism and state repression in early 1990s Algeria. He signed, for instance, the appeal against the "recourse of armed violence to defend or conquer power, terrorism; repression, torture and executions, murders and kidnapping".3 Derrida was a left progressive, whose belief in moral hospitality, and his defence of Marx (Spectres de Marx 1993) distance him by kilometres from such as the recently deceased Baudrillard, who displayed only nihilism after the attack on the twin towers.

Turning to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Cohen shows an increasingly shaky grip on the alternatives. Opposition to the war, would, he asserts, have "kept fascism in power" (p282). Its mass impact was motivated largely by fear, and it failed to "oppose fascism" (p284). Yet "a principled left that still had life in it and a liberalism that meant what it said might have remained ferociously critical of the American and British governments while offering support to Iraqis who wanted the freedoms they enjoyed" (p288).

Firstly, principled opposition to the war was based on an equally ethical basis as those, like the leaders of the Euston Manifesto, who claimed that the moral claims of Iraqi victims overrode the state's national sovereignty. In the Kantian terms of these writers, they were prepared to sacrifice autonomy, the right of a people to decide for themselves, to a superior cosmopolitan law, enforced by bombs and guns. In effect they were demanding that a modern version of a 'universal monarchy' of moral exactitude would be imposed - directly contrary to Kant's own belief in voluntary federations between states.4 Defending those Iraqis who want liberty does not mean forcing an entire nation to be free by force of arms.

Secondly, as 'realists' we do not need the tired cliché of 'It's all about oil' to see that the interests and actions of the American hegemon and its allies are likely, to say the least, not to be best explained by the opinions of a few right-of-centre universalists. That an expansion of neoliberalism, which seeks the accumulation of wealth, may influence military actions. That enforcing overwhelming economic and military power (not to mention the corrupt companies in their train) is not good means to achieve a democratic end. Or that, as just about anyone who knew the region stated at the time, getting rid of Saddam from the outside would create in Iraq the charnel house we now see.

What holds Cohen's views together is a call to arms: we are confronting a new totalitarian menace. He endlessly repeats the same notes: that anti-semitism and conspiracy theories permeate the Middle East, that islamism is a "global fascist ideology" (p354), which is a "psychopathic totalitarian movement that will murder without limit for decades" (p359). 'It' is on the march. Psychopaths and killers there certainly are. But are all forms of islam islamist? What is there to bind the secular islam of many Bengali muslims, who believe in our common humanity, the right-of-centre Turkish Welfare Party, who are simply as reactionary as the Bavarian Christian Democrats, the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, who wish to gradually abolish human sovereignty and rights and replace them with the vice-regency of god, with the jihadists of Al Qa'eda, who wish to murder even their co-religionists if they stray from their narrow path?

Cohen attacks Marxism for ignoring the power of ideas. But he himself fails to grapple with the material force of religious-political ideology, to differentiate between distinct types. Suicide bombing itself is wrapped up in an alienating globalised culture, in which a return to simplicity, patriarchy and authority play a role and worshiping a just war in which murdering enemies (kafir) is praiseworthy, as if the planet is a battlefield. If there are some points in common between the ideas of Qutb, regarded as the founder of radical islamism - his loathing of the Jew, the communist, the crusader (not a fascist target, I think) and the secularist - there was no Nazi equivalent of the myth of the golden age of the just caliphs.5

Finally, for the left it is surely important that democratic rights be considered as social as well as political. Labelling our opponents as totalitarians ignores class. Those forms of islamism that constitute a challenge to democratic socialism are wedded to exploitation and property. They are movements of pious islamic bourgeoisies. It is one of the delusions of the islamophiles that they imagine that a few phases about social justice, opposition to globalisation and 'imperialism' make them part of the great movement for human liberation that socialism has sprung from.

In fact many on the left have rejected those who wish to be aligned with islamism. Leftist websites and journals have ferociously criticised Respect's communalist alliance with islamism, as well as mocking Galloway's antics. Cohen cites Mike Marqusee's widely circulated critique of the STWC, but ignores the fact that Mike continues to attack the American occupation. Many others have followed this dual track.

A central issue at the moment is to oppose potential American intervention in Iran, while supporting the opponents of the theocrats in Tehran. Another is the domestic cause of republican secularism - the best answer to religiously inspired political bigotry. None of which is helped by lumping 'the left' into a heap, or by standing aside, as does the Euston Manifesto (many of whose hands are less than clean with their implicit support for western militarism).

What's left? follows in the footsteps of the 1970s French nouveux philosophes, who wanted to clear out left complicity with the Gulag: that is, to unravel a complex network of affinities at one blow. The present pamphlet comes close to suggesting that the British left is largely made up of fools and knaves. A mix of ethical shoppers and those conniving with totalitarians. It is as if Cohen's sparks were aimed at igniting a general conflagration to burn all of us up.

Just as this never happened in France, where la nouvelle philosophie fizzled out, I suspect that What's left?'s flashes will equally turn into a damp squib.