Scratching a bad rash

I’m getting a bit sick of the design and layout arond here. Thinking about a change. Also, the content: more righteous indignation, less paranoid speculation. Or was it the other way around?

Actually, I’ve been reading Nick Cohen’s interesting criticism of the left in today’s Observer. He makes a number of salient points in his dissection of everything that is wrong today with liberal-left politics and its general failure to adapt to the 21st century. I don’t agree with him on everything. But he does remind me why I decided some time ago never to align myself with any political group or party because there are simply none who seem to have the right approach to things. Spain is a classic example: I’m not a Catalan nationalist but I’m sympathetic with those who would like more autonomy for Catalonia. At the same time, I couldn’t support any of the parties who push for greater autonomy here because their memberships and leaders seem to be conniving, divisive pricks to a man. Besides, if greater autonomy means more laws banning me from drinking calimotxo or Xibeca and smoking weed at the beach with my mates, then perhaps it’s not such a hot tip?

The Iraq debacle is another good example (and this is what Nick Cohen is focused on): I’m naturally a Labour man but how can I vote for that party when Tony Blair still insists that it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t. Saddam was an awful, murderous bastard but the hell which has been unleashed on ordinary Iraqis does not justify his removal. Nick Cohen’s main argument seems to be that the left has lost its way because in its opposition to illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, curtailed human rights at home, rendition and Guantanamo, it has failed to condemn the evil which so called ‘neo-conservatives’ are determined to defeat. There’s a lot of ammunition for this argument and those employing it get a very real thrill from expounding the claim that the left wing is stuck in a bygone age when it could rely on being morally superior and nothing more. And it is true that numerous anti-American and anti-Semite worms have crawled out of the woodwork just in time to make us all look bad.

But the problem with Cohen’s position is that all he’s doing is claiming the moral high ground for the neocons. Basically, he seems happy to tell the left that they don’t recognise that the world has changed and things aren’t as clear cut as they once were, while at the same time he’s stating quite firmly that this is a simple case of moral imperative: we had to remove Saddam at any cost. Clearly, he wants to have his cake and eat it.

He continues by drawing attention to the millions of left wingers who demonstrated against ‘the overthrow of a fascist government’. To emphasise his point, he makes trite references to Rome, Madrid and Berlin – as if the residents of cities which had once lived under the shadow of a dictator should somehow ‘know better’. The problem is that opposing the war was never the same as appeasing Saddam. Who cares if he was happy about the protests? The point of the demos was to let our governments know that we weren’t going to be hoodwinked into an illegal war which would end up killing tens of thousands of civilians. And we were absolutley right.

The problem for those who were (and, carazily, still are) in favour of the war is that they really did think they were going to get things over and done with pretty quickly. They didn’t realise that they were going to visit on Iraq a state of murderous destruction not seen since the dark days of Saddam’s purges. Or if they did, they didn’t care.

The point of all this is, I suppose, to say that in the case of Iraq, there is no moral high ground. We on the left had nothing to suggest in the way of alternatives to getting rid of Saddam. We need the oil, the Iraqis need democracy and the world is a better place without that awful man. At the same time, supporters of the war must accept that they have made a colossal mistake in Iraq, causing the deaths of many tens of thousands of civilians, enraging an already volatile muslim community, establishing the dangerous precedent of pre-emptive attack and handing vast strategic power to a much more dangerous country: Iran.

In the end, Nick Cohen’s article is more or less spot on, insofar as it discusses the facts of the dispersal of the left-wing in Britain… (I only wish he’d write another about modern conservatism). While there are aspects of his argument which I find I can’t agree with, he’s correct about two important things: the left wing has lost its way horribly and we have failed to display any reasonable degree of solidarity with the Iraqis: the true victims of all this mess. Think on.

14 thoughts on “Scratching a bad rash

  1. Well I can only agree partially with you on Nick Cohen – in many ways it’s just the latest version of the argument from the what might once have been called the pro-war left, but which no longer wishes to be associated with the left. You can make legitimate criticisms of the attitude of some on the left in terms of their relationship with anti-semites or reactionary Islamists, but those who supported the invasion of Iraq on entirely false premises and who continue to misrepresent the consequences of that invasion – e.g. presenting all those who oppose the US presence as “bad people” – are not in the strongest position to be criticising anyone until they do a bit of navel gazing themselves.

  2. You’re right, they’re not. But that’s what I said, isn’t it? There is no moral high-ground for either side. Don’t worry: I’m not going to do a Christopher Hitchens here. I’m clear in my mind that the war was wrong.

    I do agree with Nick Cohen about his central criticism that the left is very lost at the moment. Can you tell me that you’re committed to old fashioned socialism?

  3. Aha, it depends what you means by “old fashioned socialism”. Given that we have a world where “old fashioned capitalism” is still very much in vogue I think much of the historical critique that socialists made of capitalism remains very valid. Which is not to say that we have to start acting as if everything is still the same as it was 100 years ago.

    The problems that some of the left had with the Iraq war are also not particularly new – many wars have had the effect (or side effect) of getting rid of nasty regimes, the problem is that this is not normally the reason for waging the war. Nick Cohen and company will do little to help the left find its way, they have found new friends to play with.

  4. Given the positive attention of other bloggers, I clearly got something wrong about Nick Cohen. Anyway, enough of this: let’s talk about Big Brother again.

  5. Hi Tom–

    Excellent post. I just bought Nick Cohen’s new book about the contemporary Left and I’ll be interested to see what he has to say. As an anarchist for the past 25 years, my experience has paralleled his, although many of my negative experiences of the authoritarian left occurred early on, so that I can’t pretend to be shocked by any position they adopt on any topic. I’ll confess to having been somewhat aloof on the Iraq war and the protests against it and have watched it all with an appalled but nonetheless jaundiced eye. Here was a war initiated by one set of enemies of the world’s working classes against another enemy, prompted by yet another (i.e. Iran). My only concern, in effect, was what the consequences would be for the Iraqi working classes and activists, many of whom had been slaughtered by the Baath Party over the years (victimes with whom the Left had formerly appeared to show some solidarity, when British and U.S. governments supported Saddam).

    I have yet to encounter any anti-war protesters on the Left whose objection to the war was that hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis would die. They didn’t have the available intelligence to argue this, but in any case, the Leftists I know really don’t give a shit about innocence – it’s more of a liberal or human rights objection to the war that one is more likely to here from Christian antiwar protesters. No, instead, their objection was principally that this was an American imperialist venture in pursuit of oil and was, for that reason itself, objectionable. To which my response was, “Yes, but so what?” Wars are always conducted in the interests of someone other than the working classes, and the orthodox Left position on wars once upon a time was simply this: “which result will best suit the progressive forces of the world?” Nobody asks this question any more. Sadly, I think there is a knee-jerk anti-Americanism on the Left today right across Europe that overrides any such consideration, whether or not in this case it can be shown that defeat for the Americans was devoutly to be desired or something to be abhorred. Nobody was having this debate at all.

  6. Well I opposed it becuase I knew that thousands of innocent people would die.

    The thing is that many people have forgotten that ‘the allies’ were bombing Iraq regularly for ten years in between the two land assaults. My feelings in 2002 were that the Iraqi people had suffered enough at our hands and that if this meant dealing with Saddam in a way which avoided war (his reign, while atrocious, had become much less bloody by this point) then maybe that would have been the best way to deal with things.

    I’m interested to know: as an anarchist, do you categorically exclude yourself from the ranks of the ‘left wing’ (which has always been a stupidly collective term anyway)?

  7. It’s also worth noting that Parliament’s first debate on the war since 2004 has just started. It came immediately after PMQs but unfortunately, Tony Blair had some other, more pressing issues to take care of and thus had to leave before the debate started.

  8. Hi Tom–

    I suspect the reason for your objection to the war was shared by the majority of those who protested it on the streets, but that wasn’t the thinking behind the position of the hard left parties, as far as I can see (let me also admit to a bit of prejudice and say that, even if that argument had been advanced by hard left parties, I wouldn’t for one moment have believed their bona fides or concern). It’s a perfectly reasonable position, but my interest in Nick Cohen’s piece and book is because of the stance taken by the organized left.

    To answer your other question, I’ve always accepted Bakunin’s dictum: All anarchists are socialists, but not all socialists are anarchists. I have friends in the CNT, IWW, and Ireland’s WSM, without being a member of any organization any more. I’d be more sympathetic with the global justice movement or alter-globalization crowd these days.

  9. I rather like ‘alter-globalization’, actually… it recognises the presence of globalisation but says that we can do it another way. You’ve started a movement.

  10. I’ll join your movement John so that makes two 🙂 I totally agree with you both that “anti-globalisation” is a terribly abused word. Whenever the media use it, its always in the context of “these left wing luddites don’t want an integrated world” when in actual fact, internationals were a working-class invention anyway. One thinks of the International Brigades that fought in Spain and the workers internationals. It is as you say, the TYPE of globalisation thats going on that we are against so I reckon alter-globalisation has a future.

    As regards Nick Cohen, I think you summed it up pretty well Tom although I’ve taken a much harder line against what he said. In the same way that the word anti-globalisation is misunderstood, I’ve taken serious issue with his stance against “anti-Americanism”. Its here if you are interested:

    http://www.nicholasmead.com/index.php/2007/01/25/
    what-is-left-and-where-has-nick-cohen-gone/

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