Thursday, July 12, 2007
# Posted 6:37 AM by Patrick Porter
OXBLOG INTERVIEWS NICK COHEN (PART 1): ‘We’re all Hizbollah now.’ For journalist and author Nick Cohen, this slogan symbolises everything that has gone wrong with big parts of today’s British Left. Last July, some leftist protesters in London held up this placard, identifying themselves with a movement whose leader is openly anti-semitic, and whose former leader once announced ‘We are not fighting so that you may offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you.’
Instead of merely opposing British or American policies and wars abroad, Cohen complains in his book What’s Left that influential and mainstream leftist have gone along with movements representing everything they are meant to be against: the ultra-right. In his own words, they have made excuses for, or sometimes sided with, a religious fanaticism that wants to ‘subjugate women, kill homosexuals, kill Jews, kill freethinkers and establish a theocratic empire.’
Refreshed by beers supplied by Oxblog, Nick smiles across the table in a little north London pub. He’s a friendly and incisive bloke who kindly takes time away from his deadlines to talk about what happened to the politics he once thought he knew, and what can be done about it. I asked him how he defined the new political landscape, and hurled some ‘devil’s advocate’ questions at him.
As well as being a regular columnist at the Observer, Nick helped to launch the Euston Manifesto, a statement of principles by democratic leftists concerned that some fellow progressives in their zeal to oppose American foreign policy were getting way too comfortable with reactionaries along the spectrum from misogynists to anti-semites, Baathists to Islamist militants.
Cohen argues that the demise of socialism as a credible programme of emancipation opened the way for a strange realignment of leftist opinion. The political left became far more defined by negation – what it opposed- than what it supported.
The result? British leftists in the antiwar movement making common cause with the far right Muslim Brotherhood; Iraqi socialists and trade unionists abandoned or ignored after the fall of Saddam; leftist intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky either denying or playing down ethnic cleansing of nationalists in the Balkans; the socialist Mayor of London hosting and defending preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who had called for the killing of apostates and homosexuals; in parts of the academy, the onset of an extreme relativism which taught that it was racist to oppose sexism in different cultures; the growth of anti-semitism of varying intensity, some of which makes its way into his email account from hostile readers.
Cohen tries to balance two arguments that rarely sit together in emotional equilibrium: anger with the flawed policies and incompetence of the Bush and Blair governments, but solidarity with Iraqis as they tried to build something better after decades of tyranny.
A leading figure in Cohen’s argument is Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi dissident who documented the brutalities of Saddam Hussein, the genocide, serial aggression and divide-and-rule terror of the regime. A powerful summary of Cohen’s case is the story of how Makiya was eventually abandoned by those he thought his allies on the left. When it came time to choose whether to support the US-led, UN-mandated effort to turn back Saddam’s forces from invading and annexing Kuwait in 1990-1, the likes of Alexander Cockburn, Tariq Ali and Edward Said dismissed his talk of the crimes of Baathism. Baathism might be bad, but American imperialism was worse, and Makiya suddenly found himself unpopular amongst old comrades.
Cohen targets not just the far left, such as the Socialist Workers Party, but the fringe ideas that he believes have saturated the mainstream. Cohen’s book identifies supposed leftists who have in different ways made excuses for, or allied with, the most reactionary strains of Islam: the head and organisers of the Stop The War Coalition; the Mayor of London; a celebrated playwright; pundits in progressive newspapers such as the Guardian and Independent; BBC journalists; even the English National Opera!
More broadly, Cohen laments the loss of a sense of comradeship, and the decline of what was once the core principle of the left, international solidarity with the oppressed. As a man of the left himself, with a strong socialist pedigree in his family, he regrets that once upon a time amidst the wreckage of the failure of Marxism-Leninism and even mild socialism, the great consoling claim of the left was that it had once squarely opposed fascism. Now, he isn’t so sure.
So what is it to be left-wing? This, Cohen argues, is part of the problem. It has lost a coherent definition and set of baseline values, and has replaced the positive programme of reform with broad opposition to what it sees as American imperialism.
I suggested that there was arguably a resurgence of democratic socialism in parts of South America, but Nick said that this was often demagogy, financed by oil profits that lacked a true socialist programme of nationalisation of industry, and is highly dependent on anti-American oppositionalism than positive emancipation.
I asked Nick why it is that in this mixed up landscape, a neoconservative or right-of-centre folk are more likely to criticise without qualification the jailing of trade unionists in Iran than a leftist. To Cohen, it is partly that this kind of criticism is suspected of being a stalking-horse for cultural imperialism or an assertion of western hegemony.
He cautions against those who might be driven to denounce the reactionaries in the Iranian government in order to create a drive to war. But he also argues that the reluctance to ‘impose’ ‘our’ views, the reluctance to show solidarity with feminists, trade unionists and ethnic minorities in Iran is part of an insidious double-standard, a view that non-western cultures are incapable or unworthy of liberal values and that pluralistic civil society is specific to ‘us’, and not for poor brown people.
Cohen argues that the Iranian revolution actually highlights the disappointment for the modern left, that some of the forces which oppose American hegemony are deeply reactionary. Initially, when the Khomeiniate revolution erupted, leftists around the world voiced their support, but then it turned on them and persecuted Iranian progressives.
Nick regrets that many leftists have been reluctant to embrace wholeheartedly the cause of democratic reformers in dictatorships. What should be their ideals have been taken up and incompetently pursued by the Bush administration.
This leads me to ask him the corollary question from his book title, what’s ‘Right’? Cohen grins and says that this was also a book he could have written. I note that there are divisions on foreign policy within rightist circles every bit as profound as on the left: in the USA, Pat Buchanan versus George Bush, or in Britain, Peter Hitchens versus Michael Gove. Cohen agrees, but suggests that internationalism is traditionally a more natural stance of the left, whereas nativist isolationism is more of a right-wing animal.
I ask Nick about the practical implications of his stance. If he is concerned that people take the right side in political conflicts, does that position have practical policies as well? Might not it lend itself to the promiscuous resort to war as a policy instrument?
Nick replies that it is about being vocal in solidarity: western socialists should support fellow socialists battling oppressive regimes abroad, feminists should support feminists, liberal humanitarians likewise. There should be more open dialogue with democratic reformers, to create external pressure on regimes by highlighting the plight of those struggling to emancipate the country.
But wouldn’t western solidarity create the impression that democratic reformers in Iran, say, or Zimbabwe, were fifth columnists for foreign imperialism, and make their job harder? Nick responds that this should be a matter for the dissidents themselves. But they are not saying ‘back off’ – they are asking where the solidarity is. The problem, he argues, is that there is currently little dialogue. If the left devoted as much attention as it did in Palestine to human rights violations in Iran, Zimbabwe, China, Congo or North Korea, this would make peaceful revolution much easier. Instead, with honourable exceptions in Amnesty or Human Rights Watch, the plight of those whose suffering cannot be attributed to America or its proxies has been greeted with near-silence.
I then suggested another potential problem with his position. He believes that the left should speak out with greater clarity against Islamic extremism. But is it possible to identify this as a threat without unwittingly encouraging bigotry towards ordinary Muslims? Isn’t it a slippery rhetorical exercise that could lead to greater intolerance?
Nick agrees that this is a danger. Just as insidious anti-semitism is becoming the bigotry of some on the left, Islamophobia does exist and is becoming the prejudice of some on the right. But he suggests that the solution includes going back to encouraging progressive Muslims, as this is an argument that must be had within the Islamic community. It’s also partly about who the government recognises as the figures or organisations as the spokespeople of Islam. Treating Islam as though it were just one giant bloc helps to give undue attention to its most vitriolic spokesmen, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Jamaat-e-Islami, reinforcing the misperception that Islam is inherently threatening and extreme. Cultures are not hermetically sealed boxes, or monolithic sets of ‘values.’ (5) opinions -- Add your opinion
Thanks for linking to the Euston Manifesto site. Would it be possible for you to link directly to eustonmanifesto.org? (Just chop the "joomla" bit off the end of the link you put in the body of your post.)
The remnants of the "old" left have the activities of the bulk of their lives to account for. Their support of socialism and communism that murdered 50,000,000 to 100,000,000 fellow human beings. Their stands against the free world have been many times documented and to high acclaim in society. The blow-back price to be paid is their rational minds.
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