It's a polemic, don't you know
Last month Norman Geras was baffled, as I suspect he often is, by a mysterious new phenomenon. “When the Euston Manifesto was published in April last year,” he said, “something strange happened.” Apparently people mistook it for some kind of pro-war document, even though “[a] paragraph of the manifesto had clearly stated that there were both supporters and opponents of the
The same unfortunate tendency greeted Cohen’s book. For instance, Stan Crooke of Workers’ Liberty is quite sure that “What’s Left? is not ‘essentially’ about the
“What follows is a critical history of how the symptoms of the malaise [of liberal-minded people making excuses for a totalitarian right] began in obscure groups of Marxists and post-modern theorists; how the sickness manifested itself in the failure to confront genocide in the
Middle Eastand Europeuntil it grew into the raging fever of our day.”
So there we have it: despite the mention of “genocide in the Middle East” in Crooke’s own quotation from the book, despite the straining efforts to relate Virginia Woolf to Saddam Hussein, even though Iraq was apparently what convinced Cohen the Left were soft on fascism, his book isn’t essentially about the Iraq War. It just mentions it more than anything else. In fact I pointed out that Cohen “invokes
But let’s turn to Oliver Kamm dealing with another false charge. Apparently, What’s Left? “is not centrally about a pro-totalitarian and anti-American fringe”, even though Kamm is keen to point up “memorable vignettes” of Gerry Healy et al. Geras agrees, in as far as he believes the book “may also be about you”, the presumed non-fringe leftist. He believes “Nick Cohen’s target is a real one wider than the SWP.” Oddly for a book not really about
According to Kamm, Gerry Healy, LM magazine, Stalinist fellow travelling, etc. are not “isolated cases confined to an ideological extreme”. To believe otherwise is to “miss Cohen's thesis”. In my review I mentioned the inadequately explained principle of “fringe magnification”, whereby “trends” are identified via the activities of the “fringe”, which “magnify” them. No explanation was advanced for why or how Gerry Healy was a magnified version of the “liberal-left” – indeed, Cohen was explicit that his Iraq policy was unique – but this is as close as Cohen came to a “thesis”.
Kamm opts for another piece of even flimsier hand-waving:
“In the last century, material betterment and the steady diminution of discrimination against blacks, women and homosexuals have advanced progressive goals. Much of the left has yet to come to terms with this achievement. At the extreme, some who were once thought of as being on the left have adopted the language and outlook of the right.”
In some wholly unexplained way, then, the Left’s success on social policy led to them becoming right-wing. Because they had achieved gay and women’s rights they decided to adopt the views of Muslims who were against these things. How do we know this occurred? Neither Cohen nor Kamm says. Kamm simply skips to the oracular conclusion that “[t]he alliance of Islamists and Leninists that makes up the Respect coalition is not a dalliance born of opportunism”, even though the only evidence, as opposed to speculation, in Cohen’s book suggests the exact opposite. But even if one accepted his unsupported contention, it would not explain how these “Leninists” relate to the anti-war Left in general. None of Cohen’s defenders has filled this gap.
“a polemic by a democratic leftist who watched in mounting frustration and disbelief as the democratic left around him screwed up by tolerating the intolerable and excusing the inexcusable.”
Similarly, pro-war leftists are allowed to ally with reactionaries, whereas their opponents are not. Thus
Simultaneous with this argument-dodging has been the almost complete silence on the obvious smears and logical chasms that suggest Cohen delegated his thinking to a handful of unimpressive books and blogs.
(In the world of polemics, we learn, “a little exaggeration and a little underplaying are essential tools of the trade”. So forget the “historical truth” promoted by the Euston Manifesto, which
I could return to Stan Crooke, but most of what he says regarding my review rests on the strange idea that I’m responsible for what the SWP says (it’s an organization with which I’m not associated except in Crooke’s head). More relevant is the point, still standing after Cohen’s various apologists’ efforts, that the reason people have not engaged with Cohen’s “thesis” or “arguments” is that these barely exist. No clear argument for the ideological connection between the SWP and the MAB and the mass of anti-war marchers has been made. To the extent that he presents a “thesis”, it is based on innuendo and revealed wisdom. In sum, however much Cohen likes talking about George Galloway’s leotard, he has yet to explain why we should see the future of the Left there.
For more on Cohen’s book, and proof that my review was far from exhaustive in the fatuities it covered, I recommend Tim Holmes’s outstanding, extensively researched review.