The reaction to "What's Left" mirrors that to the Euston Manifesto, an unreasonable anger about a statement of the obvious.
The most furious is Edward Pearce in an awful piece. "All of this, every death, every amputation, is the fault of the American government". Don't you think that the people actually doing the arbitrary killing might bear some of the responsibility Edward? Then, from Beatrix Campbell, there is the sound of a firmly closed and locked mind refusing to budge even slightly open. There is also a strain of patronising criticism that Cohen has 'failed to understand imperialism', as if complex international issues can be reduced to a single ideological formula. The majority seem to criticise him for saying something that he does not say at all, a position beautifully demolished here by Norman Geras. The other line taken is one of apostasy. Nick Cohen has been described as a Blair apologist (have they read "Pretty Straight Guys"?), a neo-conservative (yawn) and even compared to the climate change denying Melanie Phillips (yikes!). It is only when you go back to the blogosphere that you run into some sanity. I liked Terry Glavin's review. "I think What's Left? is a brave book, a smart book, and damn well-written, in the bargain".
The most remarkable aspect of the apostasy argument is that "What's Left" is the most unambiguously left wing book I have read in yonks. This isn't just because of its commitment to liberal values, international solidarity, anti-racism, female equality, etc. It is for the reason that it is one of the few tracts that have not abandoned the concept of class. Class runs through this book as a central theme. It is the middle classes that have embraced relativism and abandoned universalism. Anti-Blair anger is self-righteously focussed on Iraq, an anger that conveniently leaves the other left issues that might just discomfort them – housing costs, low wage domestic labour, progressive taxation, equality etc – firmly out of the equation. This is best summed up as a tale of two trade unionisms. The UCU, the union for college and university lecturers, solidly middle class with a Trotskyist element amongst its activists, has affiliated to the Stop the War coalition. The TUC started the Aid Iraq Appeal, "raising money for Iraqi trade unionists to rebuild a free and independent trade union movement, and strengthen civil society in Iraq". I know which one I would rather support.
Actually, Cohen's thesis is not new, nor are the phenomena he described. I remember going to a meeting on Palestine in 1981 organised, unbeknown to me, by some strange Trotskyist sect. I had just returned from teaching on the West Bank and was appalled at being faced by a deranged rant about the "Thatcher/Reagan axis dominating the world" whilst watching the discomfort of two intelligent Palestinian guests being unable to get a word in edgeways. The nadir came when the speaker harangued an audience composed partly of Iranian Marxist political exiles about the importance of lending full support to the revolutionary theocracy in Iran. When they politely interrupted him to point out that leftists were being tortured and murdered by the regime, which was why they were in Salford after all, he turned to them sorrowfully and, in a tone of voice that would be used to address a child, explained to them that the Iranian revolution was "objectively" anti-imperialist and therefore served the cause of progress. They walked out making some very un-fraternal gestures.
In addition, some of the themes Cohen discusses were brilliantly dealt with in 1977 by Jean-Francois Revel in his book, "The Totalitarian Temptation", whilst you can find the same attitudes back in the radical movements of the 19th Century. In my research, I discovered nauseating anti-Semitism in the 19th Century Individualist Anarchist Henry Seymour's newspaper, "The Revolutionary Review". The Anarchist terrorism of the 1880's drew numerous apologias blaming society, not the bombers. There were also those who stood against the consensus. In an earlier post I pointed out that Josephine Butler supported the British in the Boer War, her hatred of Boer racism was greater than her colleagues' uncritical "anti-imperialism". Similarly, Peter Kropotkin lost many friends by insisting that German militarism and authoritarianism needed to be defeated in the First World War and thus supported the Allies instead of lapsing into pacifism.
Nothing is new, but every era needs someone to point out that the Emperor has no clothes and that it is not a pretty sight. Thanks Nick.