What’s Left?

Nick Cohen
HarperCollins, £12.99

Reviewed by Alex Hindley

Nick Cohen has an ambivalent relationship with the left. On the one hand, the Left he sees today after the 'death' of both communism and socialism in the last century is hardly recognisable as the same political movement he was raised to view as the sole champion of morality and 'goodness' in all societies. On the other, he'd still rather be left than right.

Like a religious fanatic, he can see that the flock have lost their way but cannot think of abandoning his doctrine. If you can get past Cohen's confusion over whether it's more important that people believe in and care about what is right or that it is the Left that champions these principles, then there's a lot worth digesting in his latest offering.

What does it mean to be 'on the left' nowadays? According to Cohen, not much. Anti-globalisation campaigners make a lot of noise, but produce no likely political programme suitable to combating terrorism and intolerance, and replacing the capitalism they fear is brainwashing the west. Meanwhile, millions march behind George Galloway to prevent the overthrow of a fascist totalitarian regime in Iraq (his phrasing of this is a little unfair, the concern of the marchers for civilian casualties of a war on Saddam is scarcely noted, while the ideals of pacifism are practically beneath mention). If anything, Cohen's view is that the Left in the new century is characterised by an overweening respect and tolerance for other cultures. He claims we've become so politically correct and culturally aware that we can no longer bring ourselves to call someone a fascist unless they're a stupid, rich white man and therefore fair game.

It seems we've all become moral relativists. We can't abide sexism, racism, homophobia, terrorism or anti-democratic political views in Western society, but somehow we haven't got the courage to stand up for these principles and generalise them to the entire human race. If your religion or culture demands that you persecute minorities, who are we to stop you? The Left Cohen remembers never respected such borders. The new tendency to do so is blamed on either cowardice, pessimism or confusion over what constitutes racism.

Even at home Cohen's Left seems lost. Middle class liberals have lost interest in the economic side of Leftism in favour of a focus on personal and individual freedom (of speech, religion, sexuality, etcetera). Suddenly the working class that the left idealised as the future of society is looked upon by the middle class left as a species of ex-lover. Educated liberals were first disappointed by the working class' failure to produce the revolution they predicted, and then started to wonder what they ever saw in them. Suddenly they are ascribed all the worst vices the Left can imagine: ignorance, racism, homophobia, sexism, conservative political affiliation (worst of all). Equality is for everyone, but more than ever we do not believe that all people are born equal.

According to Cohen, even those who are interested in the economic side of things seem to have developed an obsession with the all-powerful machine that is western capitalism. We are lead to believe that our lives are meaningless and ultimately unfulfilling because we are surrounded by conveniences and advertising. Anti-Americanism is rife. No one seems to notice that even if Bush and Blair are idiots and capitalism is an unfair system we really don't have it that bad. No one wants to admit that Western governments can occasionally make the right choices.

Admittedly Cohen makes some interesting points. However his arguments are hard to distill, wrapped up as they are in such a dense and conscientiously detailed history of the reactions of various factions of the Left and Right to the major conflicts of the 20th century. Kosovo, World War two, Iraq parts I & II, it's all covered with scorn for the Right and exasperated sighs for the Left. Not that I believe that the only correct form of expression is sound-bite friendly, argument-driven and rigidly chronological, but one or two of the three might help.

However, if you have the time to dedicate to reading and re-reading passages to take in the many very interesting details and arguments crammed in there this is thought provoking and worth the effort.

His evidence is also mostly anecdotal, and sometimes one wonders how long he had to search to find quotes that fit his arguments so well. This book is mostly opinion, but it is educated, independent opinion nonetheless.

This book can be ordered from News From Nowhere, Liverpool’s radical & community bookshop.

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