Socialists welcome criticism. Our arguments always need sharpening, and a good debate is an excellent way to do this. Unfortunately, the journalist Nick Cohen’s new book, What’s Left?, isn’t much help in this (or any other) respect.
In 363 pages of tedious, self-righteous diatribe, there isn’t even one decent joke. The back cover compares Cohen to the 18th century satirist Jonathan Swift. Sorry, Nick, you won’t be on the GCSE syllabus in 300 years time.
Cohen knows there is something wrong with the world – one billion people in “abject poverty”, a “differential between the richest and poorest countries” of 75 to one and rising. So where is his anger directed?
At the rich corporations who run the world and the governments that serve them? No. That idea is “threadbare”. Cohen’s constant target is “the left”.
But where is this left? Cohen isn’t too sure. Sometimes it is the far left, including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), more often it is a rather vague category called “liberals”.
This isn’t Ming Campbell’s gang, Cohen is using the term in the US sense of anyone with mildly more progressive ideas than Donald Rumsfeld.
So he jumps from the anti-war movement to post-modernist academics, from the BBC to the London Review of Books. The enemy is out there somewhere.
The left’s great crime was to oppose the invasion of Iraq. Cohen piles on details – undoubtedly true – of the vicious nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the sufferings of its victims.
But despite his indignation he never comes to terms with one simple fact – that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a disaster for the Iraqi people.
He accumulates anecdotes and quotations designed to prove the folly and moral corruption of his opponents. Cohen is a youngish man who doesn’t know much history, so his attempts to explain the past are full of half-truths.
He knows vaguely that something happened in France in 1968, and thinks it may have been “student riots” – actually it was the biggest general strike in human history. Try Wikipedia next time, Nick: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_1968
Quotations, second-hand and out of context, are piled up to prove not very much.
Novelist Margaret Drabble is quoted as saying “I detest Coca-Cola”. This apparently demonstrates the undemocratic anti-Americanism of the anti-war movement.
“All around me”, he laments, “liberal London descended into the radical chic of the ultra-right.”
The editor of the Daily Mail recently complained that the BBC was dominated by “cultural Marxism”.
Cohen tells us that “for years, the BBC’s attack?dog presenters couldn’t manage to give one opponent of the war a tough interview. Not even George Galloway.”
Presumably he was asleep for Jeremy Paxman’s election night confrontation with Galloway in 2005.
Having declared his commitment to “free speech”, he expresses outrage at the fact that Galloway is “offered columns by the Guardian”.
Presumably he believes the pro-war position is underrepresented in the Guardian, and that Galloway’s rare contributions should be suppressed.
In the most disgraceful passage of the book Cohen cites the Nazi BNP to smear Galloway.
He quotes BNP Online: “the Muslim community chooses to vote only for those political parties that explicitly promote the interests of the Muslim community itself”. He has the impudence to assure us that “the BNP was seeing Britain clearly”.
Cohen is no investigative reporter. If he had bothered to take the tube to Bethnal Green, instead of relying on the BNP, he might have found that things were a bit more complicated.
The Catholic Galloway defeated two Muslim candidates in the election – and was threatened with death by extreme Islamists during the campaign. Such subtleties evade the racist BNP – and Cohen.
The same willingness to pick up any second-hand judgement that suits his case is evident when he deals with the anti-war movement.
The 15 February 2003 demonstration is dismissed with a quote from Ian McEwan’s tedious novel Saturday, whose hero is more interested in playing squash than observing the biggest march in British history.
Several pages are devoted to gossip about the Workers Revolutionary Party, which collapsed 20 years ago. Cohen, using the classic tactic of “guilt by association”, insists that its record condemns the rest of us.
The SWP is “chilling”, and its founder Tony Cliff, is described as “noisy and dense”. Cliff did raise his voice on occasion, but he had the sharpest brain I have ever encountered.
We are denounced as “immoral” on the basis of one article by Mike Marqusee. Cohen carefully omits Marqusee’s acknowledgement that “many individual SWP members all over the country make real contributions to numerous struggles for social justice”.
In the absence of evidence Cohen resorts to falsification. He tells us that the far left’s “theorists had been saying since the early Nineties that if they got into bed with Islam they could ‘secretly try to win some of the young people who support it to a very different, independent, revolutionary socialist perspective’.”
The quote is from an article by Chris Harman in International Socialism journal 64. But Chris never used the word “secretly” – he called for an approach “which fights to win some of the young people”.
Cohen has changed a plea for honest debate into an advocacy of underhand methods. He may claim that it is a printing error or a harmless slip. He is either grossly incompetent or grossly dishonest.
After this I lost patience with Cohen’s accumulation of smears and half-truths. Any valid points he may have had are lost amid the monotonous whining. If this is the best the “pro-war left” can throw at us, we can go forward with confidence.