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 invention. What’s Left? is certainly worth a read for those who want to start exploring some of the more contentious beliefs of the far left.