What’s Left? – Review

What's LeftNick Cohen england

Fourth Estate (400 pages), 2007

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What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way is a polemic against the liberal left.  Cohen’s prose is punchy and takes no prisoners as he pokes holes in the arguments of the liberal left.  Cohen is critical of the left’s opposition to the Iraq War.  However he creates an incredibly wide definition of what constitutes the left.  Basically anyone who isn’t Tony Blair and opposed the war is seen as part of the left.  He also feel that all opponents to the Iraq war were either misguided about the brutality of the Baathist regime or were pseudo-Stalinist supporters of Saddam Hussein.  Personally I opposed the Iraq war on the grounds that the reason for the war was false (the weapons of mass destruction claim) and that, based on events such as Afghanistan, the West would start a war, create massive amounts of destruction, and then leave the country in a mess.  Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, one of the worst in recent decades, as Cohen notes from his reading of the excellent Republic of Fear.  And whilst there were supporters of Hussein amongst the anti-war protestors the vast majority believed that the risks of invasion potentially outweighed the benefits for many Iraqis.

Cohen is on firmer ground when he attacks far left political groups such as the Workers Revolutionary Party and its cult like grip on its members.  Years ago I was on a protest march and got talking to some Socialist Workers Party (SWP) members.  Their devotion and certainty struck me as nearly identical to a fundamentalist Christian baptism I once attended.  Their eyes would literally glaze over as they lovingly described the potential future that awaited us if we followed them.  But just as quickly their eyes would flash with anger when they described the failure of most of society to follow their guaranteed path to happiness on earth.  Trotskyist political parties have long recognised that their political message isn’t sufficiently palatable to win them many votes in the ballot box.  Hence their need to try and use Militant Tendency policies inside social democratic labour parties as Trojan horses to spread their messages.  Likewise the SWP in Ireland uses a variety of front organisations (People Before Profit, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, Right2Water) to try and reach a wider audience.  Unfortunately for them, even during the worst recession Ireland has experienced in over a decade, their share of the vote is tiny.  Irish voters turned to left-wing independents ahead of Trotskyist political parties.

Cohen attacks the writings of Robert Fisk, Edward Said, and Noam Chomsky as being too anti-Western to be worthy of their places in the upper echelons of left wing thought.  Cohen is right in saying that it’s too simplistic to blame most of the problems of a society on outside forces.  Recently, in relation to anti-gay laws in India and Africa, the media has referred to such laws as “colonial era” laws as if in some way blaming the British Empire for these draconian rules.  India and most of Africa has been independent for over half a century.  Ireland is a post-colonial country.  Whilst British colonialism can be blamed for many things it can’t be blamed for laws that a country has retained following independence.  Nonetheless it is too simplistic to suggest that colonial faults play no part to play in modern societies.  The Hutu and Tutsi distinctions emphasised by Belgian colonists in Rwanda were factors in the orgy of mass murder that occurred there but that doesn’t remove individual responsibility from those who committed atrocities.  The abused does not have a right to become an abuser without consequences.  What’s Left? is sometimes too simplistic in ignoring the subtle interplay between culture, history, and individual responsibility.

Cohen is stronger on the issue of relativism amongst parts of the left (although this is also a fault of the right too).  This is judging the same act by different standards depending where the act occurs.  Of course relativism is a part of everyday life, if I’m drunk and punch a man in the face in a bar I’ll possibly get a lighter sentence than if I get drunk and punch a man in the face in a library at lunchtime.  But there should be certain universal  human rights (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good place to start).  If I oppose the death penalty in the USA then I should be equally strong in condemning it in Iran or Japan.  If I support freedom of speech then it should be a general right available to everyone on the planet.  Michel Foucault justified repression in Khomeini’s Iran because Iran, “did not have the same regime of truth as ours.” (p.108)  Whilst there is plenty of room for cultural differences the broad outline of human rights should be available for everybody.  In the USA political groups can advertise on television but this is illegal in Ireland but in both countries yet both countries have freedom of speech; I can speak or write what I wish about the government without fear of arrest.  Whist examples like Foucault show extreme examples of relativism it’s ludicrous to suggest that these views represent the majority of the view of those on the left.  Nonetheless the ability of both left and right to distort and manipulate facts to obscure uncomfortable truths is becoming increasingly common.  Russia Today and Fox News are both masters of this.  Their pseudo-journalism is used by those on the left and right to provide “facts” to back up their arguments.  This resulted in some on the left offering support to al-Assad’s Syrian regime and advising against attacking ISIS as it would make the situation worse.  How leaving ISIS in place is better than attacking them is a mystery to me.  The far left is often short on practical solutions, they seem more concerned with sloganeering.  Over a decade ago I remember talking to a banner-carrying man at a protest against Israeli actions in Gaza.  He stated that the solution to the Middle East’s problems was working class unity across religious lines.  He couldn’t explain exactly how this would be achieved when those in the region had shown no such interest in such a plan.  I also pointed out that such slogans had been chanted in Northern Ireland following the Official IRA split with the Provisionals and, although well intentioned, had done nothing to resolve the conflict in the North.  Likewise the far left doesn’t want to attack ISIS (knowing that it would be NATO, the US, or the UK leading the attacks) but aren’t offering any solutions to those living in fear of ISIS fanatics.

Cohen’s book is well written and thought provoking but like most polemics What’s Left? is at times guilty of generalisations and simplifications.  Cohen is critical of the Spanish Socialist Party’s (PSOE) decision to withdraw troops from Iraq following their election  Although you can criticise the decision, the PSOE had been democratically elected on such a promise.  You can’t really complain about the left for allowing relativism to justify undemocratic practices in other countries but object to the democratic will of a people expressed in their own country.  Nonetheless Cohen does identify a trend amongst extremists of whatever hue to lean towards conspiracy theories.  The far left as much as the far right has the potential to be anti-Semitic.  The recent Ebola outbreak has seen the internet giving voice to crazies of all hues who believe that the outbreak is an inventionWhat’s Left? is certainly worth a read for those who want to start exploring some of the more contentious beliefs of the far left.



King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – An Acceptable Tyrant

KingAbdullah If Saudi Arabia did not sit upon such vast oil reserves it would be a pariah state.  Instead we have the unedifying spectacle of Western powers rushing to pay their respects to the deceased despot.  In Britain the Union flag was flown at half-mast in honour of Abdullah (this is slightly ironic as the Saudi Arabian flag is the one national flag that can’t be lowered to half mast). The British government has a confused relationship with Saudi Arabia, on the one hand it is critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses (including the torture of at least three British citizens) whilst on the other hand tolerating corruption to secure British arms deals with Prince Charles acting as a glorified salesman.  An investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into corruption surroundimg an arms deal between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia was dropped following political pressure.  It was decided that exposing corruption in deals with Saudi Arabia were not in Britain’s national interest.  Obviously the damage to the functioning of the rule of law in a democracy was seen as a relatively minor issue. Perhaps most laughably we have heard Abdullah being praised as a champion of women’s rights.  Christine Lagarde and Tony Blair, among others have praised the dead king’s virulent feminism.  There is evidence that four of Abdullah’s daughters live under house arrest.  Abduallah also ordered the execution of his granddaughter Princess Misha’al bint Fahd for having the temerity to fall in love.  The princess and her young lover were beheaded in a car park in Jeddah in 1977.  The documentary Death of a Princess told the story of this brutal act.  The Saudi government then tried to prevent the broadcast of the documentary in Britain and the USA (and some stations in the US didn’t broadcast the programme including South Carolina, the home state of the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia).  Saudi Arabia expelled the British ambassador and threatened economic sanctions.  Saudi Arabia’s rulers take it for granted that freedom of speech is not a human right but a threat to their existence.  The recent sentencing of a blogger to 10 years’ imprisonment and 10,000 lashes shows how much they despise free speech. Iran is rightly an international pariah for its sponsorship of international terrorism (including supporting the Assad regime in Syria) and its anti-Semitism but on most counts it is a far more liberal country than Saudi Arabia.  In Iran women can drive cars, women can vote in elections, and people of the opposite sex mingle far more freely.  In Saudi Arabia you can still be executed for sorcery (yes witchcraft is still an offense in Saudi Arabia in 2015).  Saudi Arabia only outlawed slavery in 1962.  Although the appalling treatment of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia is, in many cases, a form of modern slavery.   Some Filipino and Hindu workers have suffered appalling abuse (physical and sexual) at the hands of their Saudi employers.  There are numerous cases of foreign workers being publicly beheaded (still the standard form of execution in Saudi Arabia) for murdering abusive employees. Saudi Arabia rightly champions the rights of Muslims to practice their faith freely in countries without a Muslim majority.  But Saudi Arabia’s appalling hypocrisy in this regard is breathtaking.  Any religion other than Islam is effectively banned in Saudi Arabia.  Non-Muslim places of worship are illegal.  Christians must go to Mass in foreign embassies or meet secretly in private houses.  The wearing of a crucifix or cross is banned.  Even the humble Christmas tree is forbidden!  Religious police patrol the streets to enforce their interpretation of Islamic law. Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam is Wahhabism. The vast majority of Muslims do not follow Wahhabism and its extremely strict interpretation of Islam.  Wahhabism (and the closely related Salafism) are extreme puritanical versions of Islam that are suspicious of, and at times engage in violence against, other forms of Islam such as Sufism, Shiism, and Ahmadiyya Islam.  Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth and its role as guardians of Mecca and Medina have enabled it to control Muslim media across the globe.  Virtually all of the Arabic newspapers published in London are published with Saudi money.  The Al-Arabiya satellite news channel was set up to counter the influence of the more liberal Al-Jazeera channel.  The English language Arab News is a Saudi organ.  Saudi money finances madrassas and its teachers, mosques and their preachers, copies of the Qur’an and the Hadiths with a Wahhabi slant.  The ideology which Saudi Arabia has spread, with relative success, is virtually the same ideology of Islamic extremists such as Al-Qaeda, the Taliban (Saudi Arabia was one of only three countries to recognise the Taliban regime), and ISIS.  Saudi Arabia’s preaching of misogyny, intolerance, and extremism at home and abroad has resulted in the creation of an even greater extremism that threatens even the Saudi regime itself.  Unfortunately the hypocrisy of the Western powers (we can expect little of the Arab dictatorships) in their attitude to Saudi Arabia has directly aided the rise of Islamic extremism.  The only hope for this to change seems to be when Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth begins to decline and the West starts to become more energy self-sufficient. The Saudi royal family are corrupt on such a massive scale that it seems like the world has failed to notice their corruption.  The oil that welled up from the Arabian desert does not belong to the Saudi royal family, it belongs to all of the Saudi people.  The Al Saud family’s purchase of lavish palaces, private Boeing 747 airplanes, and gold-plated bathrooms makes a mockery of their self-appointed role as exemplars of Islam.  The Al Saud family could have used the oil wealth to benefit every Saudi citizen, to help their less well off Arab and Muslim neighbours and help create a renaissance of Islamic learning and culture.  Despite spending billions on foreign weapons the Saudi’s failed to educate their own citizens how to use them.  Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army manged to briefly seize Saudi towns before the impotent Saudi rulers had to call upon the United States to protect them (and it was this stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia that provoked Osama Bin Laden into condoning attacks within his homeland).  Instead we have the sham modesty of an obese tyrant who lived all his life at the expense of others being buried in an unmarked grave.  We shouldn’t expect much of the tyrants of this world but we should expect more of our democratic leaders.

We Need to Talk About Kevin – Quick Review


Lionel Shriver China.png

Serpent’s Tail (2003), 468 pages

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Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2005

Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel tells the story of a psychopathic teenage mass murderer Kevin through the letters of his mother Eva.  Eva’s letters to her husband Franklin recount Kevin’s growth from a malevolent child to a coldblooded killer and into his in prison.  Eva struggles with the conflict between her maternal instinct and her knowledge that Kevin is not a normal child.  Kevin’s successfully manipulates his father Franklin so that he can see no fault in his son’s behaviour.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is an accurate insight into the dangerous nature of psychopathic individuals, even those who do not progress to the extreme violence employed by Kevin.  The letters written by Eva highlight the uncertainty felt by a mother who comes to realise that her son is a threat to society.

Whilst We Need to Talk About Kevin is a convincing portrayal of one family’s struggle against the violence that lurks inside it the novel isn’t quite as successful at dealing with the wider issues in American society that it attempts to cover.  Eva is a Democrat and Franklin is a Republican and both of their political views are challenged by the practical difficulties they face in raising Kevin.  Shriver attempts to probe for the reasons behind mass murders perpetrated by school students but doesn’t reach any real conclusion about their cause.  She only hints that both Democrats and Republicans have, in some way, both failed in creating a society where American children can go to school safely.


Related Links

List of School Shootings in the United States

Trotsky – Review


Robert Service  300px-Flag_of_Ireland.svg

Pan Books (2010), 624 pages

Book Depository €16

Soviet & Russian History  sovietunion1.png

Awards: Winner of the Duff Cooper Prize 2009

Trotsky, A Biography offers the complete story of the life of Trotsky from his birth in Ukraine in 1879 to his death, at the hands of an NKVD assassin, in Mexico in 1940.  I’ve often heard the adjective Trotskyist used in left-wing politics but with only a hazy idea about the man himself.  Trotskyist parties were those on the far-left which opposed the Soviet Union especially when it was ruled by Stalin.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Tiananmen Square massacre Trotskyists could claim the moral high ground.  If Trotskyists had been in charge, they claimed, then the circumstances that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union or the massacre of protesters in Beijing would not have been present.  Of course it’s impossible to know the course the Soviet Union would have taken had Trotsky succeeded Lenin instead of Stalin.   But Service’s biography presents a convincing picture that Trotsky was no less vicious in killing those who he perceived to be enemies of socialism.  Trotsky’s failure to take control after Lenin’s death was partly due to anti-Semitism (Trotsky was Jewish) but also because he underestimated the political skills of the intellectually inferior Stalin.

Trotsky was quite willing to use lethal force to crush not only military opponents in the Civil War but also to kill off political opponents such as the Socialist-Revolutionaries, “He was not bothered about legal procedures: he wanted the Socialist-Revolutionaries punished as an example to all parties hostile to Bolshevism.  He delivered a bloodthirsty speech to this effect from the balcony of Trades Union House.” (p. 295)  Luckily for the Socialist-Revolutionaries the Politburo decided not to execute them.

In 1922 Trotsky supported the deportation of dozens of philosophers, writers, and scholars from Russia.  He, along with the rest of the Party leadership, supported preventative censorship in the form of Glavlit.  Of course it can be argued that, from a socialist point of view, that the Communist Party were fighting to insure the survival of a newly formed state.  But, unfortunately, history has shown that censorship, a lack of legal due process, the mistreatment of prisoners (including prisoners of war), and the detention of political opponents have rarely been used purely as emergency measures but have ultimately been the signs of a corrupt ideology (or, if you’re being generous, the corrupt implementation of an ideology).  Service challenges those who say that Trotsky in some way wanted a more humane version of Soviet socialism, “He accepted and propounded Marxism in its Bolshevik variant as an unchallengeable truth.  He thought that his politics were correct.  He gave no thought to the possibility that he might be wrong and that other ways of organizing society should be canvassed.  Trotsky was straightforwardly a Bolshevik.  It is true that he proposed freer modes of discussion in the party. […] But his ideas do not point to anything like a stable ‘communism with a human face’. (p. 352)

Service’s biography is not a diatribe against Trotsky.  It does point out, on numerous occasions, Trotsky’s good points; his superb leadership of the Red Army to insure victory in the Civil War, his fierce intelligence and intellectual skills, and it gives the context of his actions (after all the Romanov dynasty was hardly one worth saving).  Yet Trotsky is shown, at times, to be completely lacking in any sense of irony.   When Trotsky was was in exile in Turke in 1929 he tried to arrange entry to Germany.  The Germans refused.  Amazingly Trotsky criticised German ministers for, “…refusing to honour ‘the democratic right of shelter’. (p. 381)  Trotsky was furious at his treatment but, as Service points out, “He was someone who had supplied a rationale for withholding rights from individuals and groups in Soviet Russia.  He had made a career as advocate and practitioner of dictatorship.  He had regularly insulted democrats and mocked democracy. […] Trotsky was unwilling to accept that his fanaticism might have consequences: he expected German democracy to him as its exterminator.  Trotsky, despite his vast written output, didn’t criticise Stalin’s show trials.  Trotsky supported Stalin’s 1939 invasion of Finland and The Winter War that followed.  Most controversially, amongst the left at any rate, has been his involvement of the suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion in 1921.  Of course history would have been different had Trotsky led the Soviet Union instead of Stalin but Trotsky doesn’t suggest that it would, necessarily, have been a better place for the average Soviet citizen to live in.


Related Links

Socialist Workers Party – Irish Trotskyist party

People Before Profit – Irish front group for Socialist Workers Party

Socialist Party – Irish Trotskyist Party

Irish Independent Review – Slightly histrionic review which is highly critical of Irish trotskyist political parties.

Ramón Mercador – Wikipedia page about Trotsky’s assassin.