What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way - Nick Cohen
Walking along Cornmarket in the early Nineties, I was accosted by a strange young man not much older than myself who demanded "With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, do you think the old values of Left and Right have become obsolete?" He didn't even have a clipboard or anything. I can't remember my answer, though it was probably just "Er..." followed by a dash into Our Price, but fifteen years later, that's actually a very good question. The three main political parties are squabbling over the middle-ground, leaving the Left's old territories to single-issue pressure groups of varying credibility; the only thing uniting them is a hatred of Bush and American imperialism which, while perfectly understandable, is hardly a sound basis for a policy. One pernicious result of this is the disturbing number of left-wing voices raised in support of anyone who shares this hatred, regardless of whatever other views they espouse; the insanity of former socialists making excuses for totalitarian regimes has not been lost on left-wing journalist Nick Cohen, who has penned this vituperative analysis of the Left's decline. Where did we go wrong?
Of all people, the liberal intelligentsia seems best able by temperament and training to lead the search for the middle way. No phrase is dearer to our hearts than "there is good and bad on both sides". Our favourite colour is grey (or shades thereof). When presented with a choice between unacceptable alternatives - Hitler or carnage, Bush or Osama bin Laden, a capricious war or the perpetuation in power of Saddam Hussein - why shouldn't we be allowed to reject both without bullies accusing us of being Islamist or Baathist dupes?
I feel like a class traitor when I say it but the first lesson from the "heroic" age of the Left in the Thirties is that it never works like that in a conflict in which your own society is involved. You can be a critical friend of one side or another, a very critical friend as often as not, but you have to choose which side you are on, and those who don't usually end up as the biggest villains of all.
Cohen takes us back over the history of the left-liberal movement throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, relating it all back to the current conflict in Iraq. The style is very readable - almost chatty, if not for the simmering anger - and there are plenty of interesting nuggets about clueless champagne socialists and would-be demagogues cuddling up to the far right. He spares no scorn for the pretentious postmodernism that has muddied the waters of what it actually means to be left-liberal, and tries to get down into the roots of what we stand for. Surely it's the job of the Left to oppose oppression and promote democracy for everyone, not just (or even chiefly) the ones being oppressed by our traditional enemy of Corporate America?
This was, in many ways, a humbling read. I'd always thought I was fairly politically clued-up, and it was quite shaming to see how much media spin I'd swallowed. It's still very hard to believe anything positive about Bush or Blair, but Cohen has rightly pointed out that dodgy dossiers and the WMD fiasco are tiny concerns compared with the removal of a mass-murdering dictator, and that just because Sunni "insurgents" are fighting against Bush's America, that doesn't make them the good guys. After all, it's our left-wing values of democracy and tolerance that the Islamists are trying to destroy, and it's a little embarrassing to see the Right having to fight our battles for us.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this book has been better received on the Right than on the Left, though this in itself shows how skewed our values have become; Cohen says little that isn't based on good, solid socialism. I'm not entirely convinced by everything in here, and occasionally his arguments are a little unclear, but as an eye-opener to the real state of left-wing politics, this is a good place to start. A liberal Left prepared to excuse sexism, anti-semitism and other excesses of the far right is in need of a serious shake-up, and this book deserves to be widely read.