Is Nick Cohen Right About the Left?

The Observer, Sunday January 28, 2007
Nick Cohen’s mother and her shopping strategies guide us to his location on the left. It is a charming introduction – ethical consumption by his communist parents infused his childhood. I recognised the tone. Mine were communists and we were blessed by the belief that politics and active citizenship mattered. In our house, domestic and generational tumult roared over the terrain of Russia. My father, in raging exasperation, would shout, ‘The trouble with you is you’re a … a … social democrat!’

That’s what What’s Left? brought to mind: the use of abuse as argument. It is written with something of those bad manners: intemperate, petulant, abusive. It is a painful text, simultaneously victimised and grandiose; it is personal without self-awareness, polemical without coherence.

It starts from Cohen’s support for the Bush-Blair new imperialism and all the trouble that caused. Cohen’s book isn’t interested in why he and a few influential political commentators hailing from the left landed up isolated from the majority progressive resistance to the invasion of Iraq. Instead of asking why his coterie was estranged from the rest of the left, he rants, he explodes, he hyperventilates.

The text begins with Iraq and then callously evades the sponsorship of militarism, sectarianism and sexism and corruption no one knows how to fix. It ends with Israel instead. Yes, he admits, Palestine suffers racism and collective punishment. Yes, that’s worth fighting. ‘Yes, until you ask the question I’ve delayed asking: what is anti-semitism?’ What is this conditional ‘until’? What makes ending collective punishment and the occupation of Palestine so unthinkable?

After the end of the Cold War, he says, the left embraced fascist fundamentalism as its expression of anti-Westernism. Cohen responds to the anti-semitism swirling around Islamic fundamentalism with an alarming hypothesis: after the Cold War ‘radical intellectuals fled from universal values’ into cultural relativism; gay, black and feminist cultures became separatist, they ‘couldn’t be criticised’ and nor ‘by extension could any other culture, even if it was the culture of fascism, religious tyranny, wife-burning or suicide bombing’. Ergo, the liberal left has become fascist.

Do you recognise yourself here, dear reader? We’re used to this sort of stuff, of course: Melanie Phillips has been a prolific exponent of apostasy. It’s mad.

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