Tuesday, February 27, 2007

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 Iraq war within the group that had produced the document.” They had, in other words, not taken its promoters’ claims at face value – a quite unacceptable practice. Instead they used a “clever-clever” evaluation of its content to show that it was indeed pro-war. Geras utilized a powerful Geoffrey Howe-style cricket analogy to demolish this “nincompoop” approach.

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 Iraq war.” We know this because Cohen “spells out what it is about” in the introduction:

“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 East and Europe until 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 Iraq throughout”, but that didn’t make the cut for Crooke’s piece. When quoting me he decided instead to insert sentences from thousands of words later, without an ellipsis, producing a paragraph that appears nowhere in my review.

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 Iraq, the only divisive issue Geras felt worth mentioning was Iraq. He views “the intense hostility there has been, way beyond that organization [the SWP], towards the pro-war left” as confirmation of the Left’s general guilt. So objecting to being tagged as a Galloway clone is now confirmation that you are a Galloway clone – another masterstroke from the professor.

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.

Paul Anderson, whom Cohen commends for dealing with the “myopia” of his critics, has a marginally different take. To him What’s Left? is

“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.”

Anderson bemoans the Left “banging on about whether invading Iraq was right, oblivious to the actual situation in Iraq.” This is a precise description of what Cohen does in his book. He does not, as I pointed out, mention the state of affairs in Iraq. Instead he laments the millions who marched “against the overthrow of a fascist regime” and complains of the “legalistic” stance among anti-war left-wingers denying his view “a degree of legitimacy”. This sort of talk is surely what the Euston Manifesto dismisses as “picking through the rubble of the arguments over intervention”. But then, pro-war leftists are allowed to do that.

Similarly, pro-war leftists are allowed to ally with reactionaries, whereas their opponents are not. Thus Anderson decries the “at best moronic” acquiescence in Galloway et al. “appointing themselves as the leadership of the anti-war movement in 2002-03”. He steps back, as Cohen did, from spelling out whether joining Stop the War Coalition marches was moronic or worse. Why, if that is what he means? What did he expect those against the war to do? Suddenly the straight-talking stops.

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. Anderson’s answer to all this? It doesn’t “pretend to be a piece of cutting-edge original research or scholarship”. Who cares if it’s a feeble recycling job? Who cares if it makes false claims? It’s a polemic, don’t you know.

(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 Anderson signed. It doesn’t apply to a polemic in a good cause.)

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.

24 Comments:

Blogger splinteredsunrise said...

I suspect that Anderson, who capitulated to Croat nationalism a full decade before Nick discovered Berman, regards Nick as a sort of prodigal son. But isn't it revealing that Anderson and Norm feel the need to explain to the peasantry what Nick really means? It must be galling for a talented writer who values plain English to require this much translation.

As for our friend Ollie, I see he's been in fine bamboozling form of late. Most notably over the ICJ judgement, which he takes as a cue to reopen his defence of Emma Brockes... if I can keep my eyes open, I may do a squib on Kamm later.

6:11 pm  
Blogger StuartA said...

I wasn't aware of Anderson's background on the Balkans, so I'm glad you've pointed it out.

It struck me too, how much interpretation Cohen's "mordant and instructive polemic" seems to require from every positive reviewer. And yet even after their strenuous hermeneutical efforts it still remains entirely opaque what his book has to say to the bulk of the anti-war Left.

Their efforts to maintain simultaneously that a) he isn't tarring the majority with the antics of Galloway and b) that these antics nonetheless have something to say about the majority remind me of a priest trying to explain the Trinity -- "he's both his own son and himself at the same time, you see".

I saw Kamm's lengthy splurge about the ICJ judgement. It makes his simplistic stance on the Balkans slightly harder to maintain. And it renders even more absurd his rambling attempt to justify Brockes's "interpretation". Predictably enough, his cover is sheer volume of words. If I could discern any point to what he's said I'd consider a response. As it is I'll hope for one from you.

6:50 pm  
Blogger Steven said...

Stuart:

Kamm pretends he is satisfied by the ruling but clearly he is rattled by the obvious implications of the judgment and spews this in response:

The extent of that support during that period was not sufficient to demonstrate specific intent to commit genocide. Consequently that very strong charge, requiring conclusive evidence, was rejected - though with a dissenting opinion by the Vice-President of the Court. To claim this observation as an exoneration of Milosevic, though Serbia was indeed in formal command of Bosnian Serb forces when war crimes other than the genocidal massacre at Srebrenica were committed, is an insult to the intelligence of Guardian readers (and indeed of Guardian journalists, who showed great skill and physical courage in reporting from Bosnia).

Read this paragraph carefully because this is perhaps the closest we will ever get to Kamm admitting defeat.
Kamm appears to be saying that Milosevic is guilty of war crimes but not "genocide" (whatever the hell that much abused term means today anyway.) Wow! An article of faith of the "decent left" has jettisoned under cover of bluster.

But does this mean Kamm and his pals will cease to refer to Milosevic as a "genocidal butcher" etc? Very unlikely. It looks as if Kamm & Co are preparing the ground for a new post-legal concept: "circumstantially inferred genocide". Kamm explains:

Legal judgement is not, fortunately, historical judgement. This unprecedented action against Serbia collectively was never likely to succeed, nor ought it to have done. Against individual perpetrators, the charge of genocide with "specific intent" is more reasonably levelled, and more easily done, as a result of this judgement. The direct evidence against Mladic is established. The circumstantial evidence against the late Slobodan Milosevic, as will never now be brought in court but may be judged by historians, is strong, if not fully conclusive on grounds of specific intent. Fully conclusive proof of specific intent to commit genocide (a postwar concept) would have been technically unavailable to the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials likewise. As the purveyors of the falsehood known as Holocaust denial invariably point out for their own purposes, there is no known documentary evidence of a specific order from Hitler to murder the Jews.

"History", that irreproachable science, you see, will judge Milosevic correctly and "history" is bound to equate Milosevic with, um, the Nazis, ok?

Still it must hurt like hell that Milosevic managed to "cheat" justice not once but twice. Hell hath no fury like a NATO humanitarian deprived of genocide.

3:32 am  
Blogger StuartA said...

I've no doubt that had the ruling gone the other way, we'd be hearing all about how it vindicated Kamm and forever discredited Johnstone, et al. Instead, of course, it was "never likely to succeed". Strange that we heard nothing of this view before the outcome was known.

Kamm demonstrates that with enough verbiage almost anyone can affect a deep knowledge of International Relations.

5:16 am  
Blogger Steven said...

Agreed. Kamm's forte has always been pettifoggery, eg. searching for the tiniest inconsistency in the writings of his political enemies.

Strange that we heard nothing of this view before the outcome was known.

Yeah, and they only had 14 years to figure it out. The Bosnian government (that fig leaf for the Muslim SDA) filed the complaint in 1993.

1:31 pm  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

I must say I agree and have been utterly mystified with this line of argument about Nick's book - it's rather like saying that "War and Peace" wasn't about Russia.

Otoh, and you have no idea how much it kills me to say this, Oliver K is basically right on the ICJ judgement isn't he? I'd hate to think that anyone would use the plain facts as presented in the judgement as a basis for saying that the Serbian state didn't really do anything bad. They did, and Milosevic was culpable. The idea that there is some added quality to the legal definition of "genocide" that makes a hapworth of difference to the people who are dead, is specifically a Decent idea, isn't it?

4:00 pm  
Blogger splinteredsunrise said...

BB, it's not a question of Slobo being exonerated for his real crimes. My view has always been that he was one of the region's leading no goodniks. You don't need to condemn Slobo for crimes he didn't commit.

The real issue is the near pathological Serbophobia of the Decents. Even now it's an article of faith that atrocities carried out by Serbs were acts of genocidal fascism, while those carried out against Serbs were collateral damage.

5:34 pm  
Blogger Steven said...

The Decents have been trapped by their own logic. Here's how:

Serbia was a de facto dictatorship. Milosevic was the dictator. Therefore, Milosevic is to blame for everything Serbia did.

Now apply Decent logic to the judgment:

Serbia is acquitted of genocide. Milosevic was the dictator. Therefore, Milosevic is exonerated of genocide.

Strange how the Decents won't give the dictator Milosevic credit for the things Serbia didn't do.

5:44 pm  
Blogger StuartA said...

I'm not sure I can agree that Kamm is correct about the judgement, but that's mainly because I still can't discern a clear point in what he says.

If he was saying what you're saying, BB -- that the judgement doesn't magic away the bad things Serbia did -- then I agree he's correct.

But if even debating the magnitude of those crimes, or the Serbian leadership's responsibility for them, is tantamount to denial of genocide, as he strenuously attempted to suggest of Johnstone, then I would have said this ruling does somewhat undermine his case.

It also serves to underline, as Splintered Sunrise says, how obsessively anti-Serb the Kamm view of the Balkans is. For propaganda reasons they have always chosen to ignore ethnic cleansing by other factions, and have instead painted the entire affair as arising from a Hitlerite bid for "Greater Serbia". That view remains enormously simplistic and reductive, however much he quotes Brendan Simms et al.

As Steven says, they are trapped by their own logic. But it strikes me as a particularly unpleasant that they are still flogging this issue, with affected concern for the Balkan victims, when it is entirely obvious that the sole interest was only ever in attacking opponents of the Iraq war.

7:21 pm  
Blogger StuartA said...

But back to the book...

This posting was, I think on re-reading, rather a mess. But I see that as largely because every Cohen interpreter has their own hazy take on what it all means.

Crooke's "it's not about the war" stance is particularly odd. But then I think I got dragged into some baffling internecine Trotfest, there. Was it all because the AWL fell out with the SWP in the Socialist Alliance? I note Crooke also wrote for wannabe-ADL site, Engage, so I can't believe it's as simple as that.

Do I even want to know? I feel like it's probably not comprehensible to anyone who hasn't been embedded in the Revolutionary Marxist Leninist fraternity for the last twenty years.

7:32 pm  
Anonymous Simon said...

"the intense hostility there has been, way beyond that organization [the SWP], towards the pro-war left"

I wonder if Geras has considered that the pro-war left invites hostility because it has itself dedicated much of its time to hostile attacks on the 'mainstream' anti-war liberal-left. Certainly the reason that I gave up reading Geras's blog was that I felt he viewed people with my opinions on Iraq with contempt, and dedicated much of his blogging time to expressing that contempt.

Similarly, HP, Cohen, and their acolytes actually have very little of substance to say about the situation in Iraq, but lots and lots and lots to say about the moral disgrace of various people on the left who take alternative views to theirs. In and of itself, the pro-war argument is (or was at one point) respectable; the reason that some people are so rude about people like Geras is not that Geras backed the war, but that Geras spends to much time being unpleasantly rude about them.

5:08 pm  
Blogger james higham said...

How influential do you feel the judgement will be, over time. Is it a landmark decision or one which can be safely ignored by those whose book it doesn't suit?

7:15 pm  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

I do think it's absolutely shameful that Nick Cohen has allowed people like Melanie Philips and Nick Griffin to become the leadership of the anti-Islamist movement in the UK. I'm sure he would claim that he has nothing to do with them, but it is them, not him, that are doing all the work of leading the marches and protests against Islamism. And has he ever actually denounced them? And he is happy to sit down and interview Michael Gove, who writes favourable reviews of Melanie Phillips' books. Surely this is the true shame of the Decent Left.

2:26 pm  
Blogger Steven said...

Bruschettaboy:

But that is prescisely the purpose of the Decent Left. They scream for war and sit back and watch other die. They demand measures against Islamists and watch others march. They are too busy forming Henry Jackson Societies and comparing Slobodan Milosevic with Pol Pot and Stalin. That is their raison d'etre.

Where is the spirit of sacrifice a la international brigades? Where are the Arthur Koestlers, Andre Malrauxs etc. of the Decent Left, the warrior-thinkers risking their lives for what they believe in? (unless you call London and Washington "the front line", which is apparently what the gin-soaked Hitchens believes).

Don't be so shocked at the Decent Left's alliances. This is exactly how people without principle behave.

7:41 pm  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

I know, I'm joking - just trying to see what kind of person Nick would end up being lumped with if one were to use the ridiculous standard of association that he needs in order to, as Stuart puts it, see the future of the Left in George Galloway's leotard.

10:02 am  
Blogger StuartA said...

I think some kind of psychological study of the Decentist position is needed.

Back when the war wasn't almost universally acknowledged as a disaster, they kept up their predictable barrage against anti-war people. Now, in spite of everything, they seem if anything more self-righteous and vocal. Have they decided, at some level, that only the most brazen approach has a chance of exculpating them, or at least clouding their guilt? Have they the same grip on reality as Blair?

I honestly find it unfathomable that Cohen could come out with his book and whine about hypocrisy and lack of self-awareness among his opponents now. Can anyone explain it? Has the Decentist faction become so in love with the marginalised truth teller self-image that reality can no longer intrude at all?

12:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Decents - Eustonians - ScoopJacksonites et al have one thing in common: they don't like international law. They don't like the restrictions that international law puts on going to war. However they don't say this straight out, because actually most people in the UK quite like the idea of international law and the restrictions it places on going to war. Nick - Dave - Norm - Oliver etc probably were hoping that the invasion of Iraq would be some kind of success so that they could say "See, you can have some good results if you ignore international law".

In practice the UK - USA invasion has turned Iraq into a failed state, so they cannot claim that ignoring international law can be beneficial. They're now stuck in No-man's Land, endlessly repeating their comment pieces with their obvious illogicalities and the mock impatience with the Left that "doesn't get it".

Actually the Left has got a good grip on the plot. There was no second resolution. There were no WMD in Iraq. So the invasion of Iraq was illegal (even by Blair's tortured logic). No one has made a good case for ignoring international law: none of the Decents has even addressed the issue of international law. And it was all a glorious failure: Iraq is now another failed State that terrorists can use as a training centre. The Decents - Eustonians - ScoopJacksonites et al are just trying out different excuses in the hope that they will eventually come up with one that works.

5:37 pm  
Blogger StuartA said...

But that assumes they're perpetrating a conscious deception. Maybe they are, but I do wonder if, like Blair, they long ago detached from reality.

For instance, how do they muster such continual moral outrage at the anti-war Left, while ignoring the hundreds of thousands of deaths their war caused? How do they keep it up?

12:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps Tony Blair has lost touch with reality. Perhaps he really did think that he "knew" that there were WMD in Iraq. Perhaps he does think that the USA was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the UK in August/September 1940. Perhaps he's not strictly lying when he says these things. But if he really believes these things it's because they fit into an overall narrative, such as that the special relationship with the USA is more important than international law. Blair probably thinks this because he would get a lot of stick from Murdoch's newspapers if he damaged the special relationship.

I'm still not sure what Nick's overall narrative is. The fact that he has to be endlessly re-interpreted by his supporters is indicative of this problem.

2:08 pm  
Blogger StuartA said...

I agree about Blair. But he is obviously trapped by what he's said in the past. If he could, he'd surely never mention Iraq again.

People like Nick Cohen, on the other hand, seem to want to increase the volume, and I just wonder how such a delusional state could exist. Does he mistake his sealed world of Eustonites for widespread support? Does he not realise how shot his credibility is?

1:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may be right that Blair would prefer never to mention Iraq again. But he is doomed to defend the invasion, so he takes the opportunity to promote going to war for reasons that are not allowed under international law. This creates the odd situation that Blair is saying these days that Iraq was invaded for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with WMD (and that are illegal under international law) but if someone says "So the invasion was illegal" his supporters will give you the full story about "the Butler report said that there was credible evidence ...". Blair and his supporters continue to cling to the fig-leaf of legality about invading Iraq while promoting wars for illegal reasons.

Nick isn't forced to defend what he said in the past. He could just write about house prices (see this week's Observer). So why does he turn up the volume in his polemic? My guess is that there is still an audience for this sort of thing. That audience isn't in anything that could realistically be called the Left: but there are still large areas of the Right (and the Blairites) who need comforting that the "stood up to fascism" (even if the truned Iraq into a faile dState and broke interntaional law). Presumably he now sees these people as his audience.

7:57 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

tl;dr

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