In Ian McEwan’s novel ‘Saturday’, the protagonist Henry Perowne watches as demonstrators gather for the massive anti-war march of February 2003. He is struck, and slightly disturbed, by the levity of the crowd. ‘Everyone is thrilled to be out together on the streets – people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other.’ The protestors may be right, Perowne muses: leaving Saddam’s sanguinary dictatorship in place might, just, be preferable to aerial bombing and invasion. But they ought to be ‘sombre’ in this view – it’s a dreadful moral calculus, after all, that weighs summary execution and ‘occasional genocide’ against the hazards of regime change.
The marchers’ placards and slogans catch Perowne’s eye too. Some belong to the Islamist group that helped to organise the march, an outfit, Perowne remembers, which believes that ‘apostasy from Islam was an offence punishable by death.’ Others bear the legend ‘Not in My Name’, a phrase whose ‘cloying self-regard suggests a bright new world of protest, with the fussy consumers of shampoos and soft drinks demanding to feel good, or nice.’
The journalist Nick Cohen quotes this passage in his new book ‘What’s Left?’ It used to be, Cohen writes, that the left marched in the name of internationalism and solidarity; now its banners merely proclaim the ‘righteousness’ of its anger – that is, when they’re not declaring an explicit affinity with movements of the religious right (‘We are all Hizbullah’ anyone?).
Cohen tells me he felt very much like Henry Perowne when he watched that million-strong crowd walking through central London. ‘There wasn’t a single banner criticizing Saddam Hussein. I thought at the time, surely that’s going to change, surely they’ll be able to criticize Bush and Blair but at the same time support the people in Iraq who deserve something better than Saddam. But they never did. I realised that people on the left who had once supported Iraqi socialists were going to dump them. That’s when the iron entered the soul. That’s when I thought something is going very badly wrong and that I need to write about it.’
Instead of supporting socialists and trade unionists in Iraq once Saddam had been overthrown, some on the left went so far as to romanticise the insurgency launched by Baathist irregulars and radical Islamists, declaring it to be a movement of ‘national liberation’ – as if this were Vietnam in 1968, not Iraq in 2003. At the same time, the far left group that ran the anti-war movement entered into a formal political accommodation with reactionary Islamism, a strategy which required that history be rewritten and the terms of left-wing politics be overhauled. Cohen was bemused. ‘To say it’s left-wing to turn your back on Kurdish and Iraqi socialists is to throw the best traditions of left solidarity out of the window. What kind of left is it that betrays its comrades?’
‘What’s Left?’ is not a book about the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq but rather an attempt to answer the question of betrayal. Cohen deals in some detail with the history of socialist movements in the twentieth century in order to diagnose a number of ‘morbid symptoms on the liberal-left’ that the campaign against the war certainly brought into sharp focus but which he thinks were there long before Bush and Blair came to power.
For instance, he compares the strenuous act of historical forgetting involved in seeing Islamism as authentically ‘anti-imperialist’ with the mental gymnastics demanded of Communists and their fellow-travellers in 1939 when the Nazi-Soviet pact was sealed. Cohen is interested in the psychology of such accommodations. ‘I quite deliberately went back in the book and looked at the 70s and the 30s, at communists in the 30s and Trotskyists in the 70s (who ended up taking money from Saddam). That gives you clues to mental patterns, how people argue themselves into such positions.’
Yet, for all the historical parallels, Cohen insists that there is something distinctive about the latest ideological mutation on the left. For one thing, he says, ‘socialism as a practical political project is simply dead.’ What remains is the anti-imperialism of fools.
But isn’t this sort of thing restricted to a tiny and remote fringe of the far left? Cohen thinks not. ‘Taking a kick at the far left is good fun, but it certainly wouldn’t be worth writing a book about. The difficulty is that this attitude is so pervasive it’s hard to see how extraordinary it is. Because you’re no longer a socialist putting forward a programme, you don’t have to stand for anything. That’s why so many people read Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore – they don’t have to commit to anything. They just have to jeer.’
That is a chastening diagnosis. But at least in setting it out Cohen shows that there is still an alternative on the left to Chomsky’s suave nihilism and Moore's lumpen idiocies.
‘What’s Left?’ is published by Fourth Estate at £12.99.