Friday, 28 August 2015

From Howie's Archives: Review of What's Left by Nick Cohen (2007)

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party leadership election has led many people to read or re-read Nick Cohen's essential book What's Left. When this was originally published I wrote a review of sorts for 4Discussion #8 (March 2007), the internal bulletin of the (now defunct) 4themembers group in the PCS union. 

At the time my political activities and outlook were almost solely centred on civil service and PCS related matters as is shown by this piece. However it did bring to my attention that there was a decent "left" out there and as I began reading and later co-operating with others around the excellent blog Harry's Place there was clearly a whole new way of looking a politics. Well for me anyway.

Of course times have changed, and I have have certainly moved on, refining my "world outlook" and taking a firm stand against the reactionary "anti-imperialist" brigade a mixture of the far-left and Islamists. 

I should also point out I am no longer a member of PCS and have joined a much better union, Prospect.


Like many people on the “liberal left” I was horrified at the book burning and death threats directed at Salman Rushdie over his Satanic Verses by religious extremists. As a result I sent a cheque to sign up to a statement defending him to a group of lefties seeking to defend Rushdie's right of free speech. A couple of weeks later it was returned with a letter stating that the Statement “might be misinterpreted as being racist” in the conditions surrounding the controversy. How so, I asked myself, Salman Rushdie was a member of an ethnic minority, being threatened by err… extremists within his own community! Since the organising committee included Tariq Ali I was astounded at the political cowardice displayed by these fine men and women of the left.

It was a symptom of a drift away from core democratic and rational principles that the left was supposed to stand for that Cohen precisely seeks to address in his book. In fact it is a good example of the terror of political correctness that permeates the so-called left, as it exists in the 21st Century. For Cohen the defining moment of the lefts degeneration is the second Iraq war. The left marched against democracy he writes in support of Baathist fascism. He questions if the majority of the marchers actually knew how bad the regime under Saddam was. Certainly the traditional left did. Many of them had been involved in campaigns against the Baathist terror.

However when it came to the crunch he argues the left decided their own democratic regimes were the real enemy. A theme that Cohen develops throughout this challenging book. I take issue with the inference that if a regime is bad we have to go to war, where would it end? There are very few true democracies outside the “West”, and yes our Governments have an imperfect record in supporting a number of these regimes.

Supporting reaction

Cohen’s book is not about the war as such, no matter what your local lefty might allege. Its more about the way the left has seemingly lost all reason by supporting some of the most reactionary and fascistic regimes against our own democratic governments and indeed even the rights of indigenous populations. Where indeed are the huge demonstrations against the genocide in Dafur, the repression under Mugabe or the North Korean dictatorship? Where indeed!

The Stop the War Coalition is staffed by the Socialist Workers Party and its fellow travellers and managed to organise the largest political demonstration this country has ever seen. Most of the demonstrators had nothing in common with the politics of the SWP when they called for an end to the war. Most were simply against violence. And yet the SWTC leaders issued a statement, which called for full support to the Iraqi “resistance”. It caused such outrage it had to be almost immediately withdrawn or the whole anti war movement would have fallen apart with the pacifists leaving in droves.

What this incident has shown us is how the lefts mindset actually works. Did it not occur to them for one moment that this so called resistance was made up of Baathists and religious extremists that rejected the very notion of Iraq establishing democracy? The resistance concentrates on killing Iraqi civilians almost exclusively, to create internal strife and a civil war that they hope will take Iraq backwards. There are many supporters of the SWTC and the SWP in PCS, Mark Serwotka amongst them. And yet the attacks on the nascent Trade Union movement, Women and Gay rights organisations in Iraq continue unabated. Their killers are not the coalition forces but reactionaries from the right of the political spectrum.

This phenomenon of supporting oppressive regimes is not new, and Cohen reminds us of the slavish support given to the Stalinist regimes and their murderous regimes in the last century. They were almost excused at best as many Marxists saw such events as inevitable in their struggle. Yet at the same time would be the first to demonstrate at the perceived inhumanity of the British and Americans in Vietnam or Ireland. And while they marched ordinary people went to the wall in their preferred regimes. Even today sections of the left (enter the New Communist Party) celebrate the birthday of the “Great Leader” of North Korea, a man who keeps his nation starving and oppressed.

Human Rights first

PCS as a union is committed absolutely to Women’s and Gay rights, and rightly so. Equal opportunities has been at the core of the Trade Union movement for many years, yet the so-called left continues to give succour to some of the most reactionary regimes and movements around the world. Case in point is Iran, a theological dictatorship that recently revelled in the organisation of a conference questioning the historical fact of the Holocaust in Europe. Amongst its’ attendees were individuals from extreme right wing organisations in both the UK and Europe.

As Cohen so eloquently puts it;

“Writer after writer was incapable of grasping that people with brown skins were just as capable as people with white skins were of forming a fascistic movement and murdering others”.

Taliban anybody? The well-documented anti-Semitism of sections of the Islamist extremists shows us what people are capable regardless of race or colour. The point is anyone can be an oppressor. Just ask the people of Zimbabwe, starved and beaten down to the point where even their homes are destroyed to alter the countries demographic makeup. Recently Mugabe paid for his birthday by deducting the cost from his Civil Servants wages!

The left in the form of the SWP/Respect has sought to build links with the Muslim association of Britain, a front in the UK for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in many Muslim countries because of its’ extremism. In a leaflet last year they took the view that apostates (atheists) and Muslims who change their religion should be put to death. And yet the formally atheist SWP says not a word, so as not to upset its’ perceived allies in getting more votes.

Galloway’s follies

Of course no one will forget George Galloway and his slavish support for Saddam Hussein “Sir, I salute your courage, strength and indefatigably “, though his impersonation of a cat is probably more prominent in most peoples eyes. For me his comment that “Palestine is occupied by foreigners “ sent a chill down my spine. Formal anti-Zionism coming so close to “drive the Jews (the obvious foreigners to whom he referred) into the sea. He’s not an anti Semite, but political opportunism has consequences. I for one will always live by the slogan“Never Again”, one that incidentally is cynically used by the SWP in its anti BNP work. As a Jew I am entitled to ask, “who is my enemy”, in the midst of all this posturing!

The point of all this and I think Cohen’s basic message is that the left got lost. I like him was once part of the “left”, and it encompasses your whole view of the world. Where the left went wrong will always be a point for debate, but what is not contestable anymore is that the left has got lost and Cohen’s book is a valuable contribution to this debate and the left hate it with a vengeance. Lee Rock’s “Weekly Worker” described it as “poison”, the SWP called it vicious. I call it challenging and well worth reading.

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