Sunday, February 11, 2007

What's Left? How Castro-mourning, McDonald's firebombing loopy lefties lost their way (keep the liberals out of it)

Apologies for the lengthy hiatus in blogging; the author has been passing a PhD viva and moving house.

In my absence, the Grauniad has been making a meal of Nick Cohen's book "What's Left? How Liberals lost their way". The Grauniad might be getting excited about Nick Cohen's latest but I don't see why anyone else should given the inherent problem with the book, so perfectly encapsulated within its title. I'm a liberal and I don't feel I've lost my way at all. I belong to a proud ideological and philosophical tradition that has included such greats as John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith and The Anti-Corn Law League.

Nick Cohen doesn't seem to grasp that the people who have lost their way are a small group of "rebels without a clue" who divide their time between incoherently blathering on Comment is Free and forming a intellectually deficient 'rent-a-mob' on yet another march nominally about poverty/climate change/war/top-up fees but in fact about Palestine/ Pacificism/ Palestine / Bush/ Palestine / McDonalds /Palestine / The BNP... /Palestine... It is debatable whether this particular group had a way to lose in the first place.

The Grauniad includes an excerpt from the book which highlights the extraordinary narrowness of its political perspective. It really ignores the diversity and complexity of the contemporary political landscape. I commend Nick Cohen for belatedly realising the things that many political operators have realised all along:

I still remember the sense of dislocation I felt at 13 when my English teacher told me he voted Conservative... I must have understood at some level that real Conservatives lived in Britain - there was a Conservative government at the time.... But it was incredible to learn that my teacher was one of them, when he gave every appearance of being a thoughtful and kind man. To be good you had to be on the left.

Yet for all the loathing of Conservatives I felt, I didn't have to look at modern history to know that it was a fallacy to believe in the superior virtue of the left: my family told me that... He [my father] knew how bad the left could get, but this knowledge did not stop him from remaining very left-wing. He would never have entertained the notion that communism was as bad as fascism. In this, he was typical. Anti-communism was never accepted as the moral equivalent of anti-fascism, not only by my parents but also by the overwhelming majority of liberal-minded people. The left was still morally superior. Even when millions were murdered and tens of millions were enslaved and humiliated, the 'root cause' of crimes beyond the human imagination was the perversion of noble socialist ideals... Every now and again, someone asks why the double standard persists to this day.

In the above paragraph, Nick Cohen finally realises that the left does not have an inherent monopoly on goodness and feels the need to labour this entirely self-evident point. Well, self-evident to a 'liberal' anyway, although not self-evident to 'rent-a-mob'. Many people in politics (and in other spheres such as business) are there because they want to improve society. Political distinctions come from differing belief systems - people clash over what constitutes an improvement and how to achieve it.

I assumed that once the war was over they would back Iraqis trying to build a democracy, while continuing to pursue Bush and Blair to their graves for what they had done. I waited for a majority of the liberal left to off er qualified support for a new Iraq, and I kept on waiting, because it never happened
Possibly because there is no 'new Iraq'. I opposed the war because I saw the lack of commitment that Bush was showing to improving things in Afghanistan (rather than sending more troops there and concentrating funding on infrastructure) and reasoned (correctly) that they would barge into Iraq, blow it to bits and then... erm... erm... If the Bush administration were reading the book "How to organise a p**s-up in a brewery" they'd have been stumped before they got to the contents page.

However, it soon becomes obvious that Nick Cohen isn't aiming his tirade at me. He's not attacking people who were against the war for reasons other than being, erm, someone who wears Che Guevara t-shirts and thinks Fidel Castro is a top bloke (because Cuban healthcare is so good):

Why is it that apologies for a militant Islam which stands for everything the liberal left is against come from the liberal left? Why will students hear a leftish postmodern theorist defend the exploitation of women in traditional cultures but not a crusty conservative don?
So we're not talking about the 'liberal-left'. No, we're talking about Marxist academics who used to write long turgid articles interpreting obscure bits of Das Kapital and now write long, jargon-filled opinion pieces about postmodernism (have you ever written an essay about postmodernism? I sympathise with your pain).

Why is Palestine a cause for the liberal left, but not China, Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Congo or North Korea?
Search me, Mr Cohen. Nothing to do with me, guv. Although I would switch China for somewhere like Belarus.

Further down the page, Nick Cohen continues broad brushing the entirety of two major philosophical traditions into the dustpan occupied by an unholy alliance of the SWP, The Grauniad and Marxist theorists:

liberals and leftists are far more likely than conservatives to excuse fascistic governments and movements, with the exception of their native far-right parties.

On average, maybe, but is an unquantifiable 'on average' enough to write a book about? Are we talking about a politically relevant and influential group? Or are we talking about the sort of people who express solidarity with the working class by eschewing soap and are interested in international development because assisting the British poor might mean they had to deal with pensioners and people wearing Burberry?

Nick Cohen answers this question. It's the latter:

Socialism, which provided the definition of what it meant to be on the left from the 1880s to the 1980s, is gone.

Not socialism, Mr Cohen, communism. Social democracy remains an entirely useable proposition for government.

Disgraced by the communists' atrocities and floored by the success of market-based economies, it no longer exists as a coherent programme for government. Even the modest and humane social democratic systems of Europe are under strain and look dreadfully vulnerable. It is not novel to say that socialism is dead. My argument is that its failure has brought a dark liberation to people who consider themselves to be on the liberal left. It has freed them to go along with any movement however far to the right it may be, as long as it is against the status quo in general and, specifically, America. I hate to repeat the overused quote that 'when a man stops believing in God he doesn't then believe in nothing, he believes anything', but there is no escaping it. Because it is very hard to imagine a radical
leftwing alternative, or even mildly radical alternative, intellectuals in particular are ready to excuse the movements of the far right as long as they are anti-Western.

So the crux of Nick Cohen's book is that communists are having problems finding something to believe in now the argument that Stalin, Mao, etc. resulted from the misimplementation of Marx's ideas has got a bit stale. Instead of supporting a really bad idea promoted by secular authoritarian genocidal maniacs, communists have started supporting a really bad idea promoted by religious authoritarian genocidal maniacs instead. Nick Cohen is wrong - communists are not believing in 'anything', they're believing in a different flavour of exactly the same thing. This is a dog bites man story... No fundamental change there.

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  • At 2:17 pm , Blogger Tristan said...

    Welcome back :)

    A good post, getting to the crux of much of the problem with the leftist movement of today.

    I do have one quibble, Social Democracy may be useable, but its still based on the same flawed socialist and collectivist ideas.
    The big difference with communism is the letter 'r'. Its committed to evolution not revolution.

  • At 7:25 pm , Blogger British National Party member said...

    Or, heres another recent take on the subject;

    Coming to rather different conclusions.

  • At 7:32 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    His position seems to be that he wants to separate the loony left from the rest of the left by calling the rest of the left 'liberals'.

    This would be fine apart from the fact that the rest of the left and 'liberals' are not the same group. The House of Dumb ignores this point by accusing both 'liberals' and 'non-insane lefties' of being similarly incoherent. This is false.

    I make the same distinction by describing Frank Field as 'mainstream left', George Galloway as 'loony left' and liberals as 'liberals'.

  • At 7:35 pm , Blogger Femme de Resistance said...

    P.S. FYI - the only reason I've enabled comment moderation is because I was fed up of searching for comment spam.

    Unless you're actually going to get us sued or are so randomly and blathering off-topic it defies reasoned descriptions (e.g. spam), I'd never delete or fail to publish comments. Because I'm in favour of freedom of speech... with being a liberal.

  • At 9:39 pm , Blogger James said...

    I think Mr Cohen was spot on with his commentary. All that's left for him to do is write the inevitable sequel 'What's Right?'

  • At 9:47 pm , Blogger British National Party member said...

    Ah, i was wondering about the comment moderation!

    You know, i wouldnt describe george galloway as looney left id describe him as *hard* left. In that he gets quite a bit of respect from me, because he has the courage of his convictions and follows them through to their logical conclusions.

    I would contrast that with ken livingstone who is a horrible two faced worm. Im sure he grew out of leftism but he went wonky - some might say absolute power corruptsd absolutely - and turned into an unlovable version of the left - liberal hybrid. Perhaps that could be best expressed as trendy lefty, what with the word liberal having been co-opted to mean policies that favour trendy causes.

    I consider myself to be properly liberal, actually, and describe myself as libertarian given the chance, such as in an interesting argument over at the richard dawkins forums. In it i argue that though christianity may be ultimately wrong in terms of God, it may be the best way we have of maintaining a libertarian civilisation. It starts off as a review of the God delusion.

    And this;

    Is my offering on the subject of what liberals are from some time ago. In it I come to rather the opposite conclusion from house of dumb!

    P.s apart from one insult at the start of my blog - which i wish i hadnt removed - automated spam and some paedophiles trying to justify the act, i have never removed comments either.


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