The praise Cohen has garnered for his new book is predictable enough – what else would The Spectator say? However, even the unimpressed reviewers don’t come close to cataloguing the full range of factual mistakes, lazy research and muddled arguments. Perhaps the monthlies will do a better job, although I doubt it. Anyhow, in the absence of anything better, here is my review.
For all Cohen’s claims to have diagnosed a general disease among the Left (or “liberals” as he bafflingly calls them), What’s Left? is essentially about the Iraq War. It’s about how Cohen was right to support it, and how his left-wing opponents were wrong, in various ways. He invokes Iraq throughout. That’s not to say he doesn’t cover other things: he suggests opposition to the invasion was the terminus of various other horrors, some of them stretching back well before the Second World War. The problem is that many of these have no obvious relation to the anti-war marchers, and those are the people whom Cohen says so disillusioned him with the Left. Anyone seeking to understand why Cohen’s support for the Bush Doctrine was so unimpeachable must fight through a tangle of historical and social theorizing relating only, on the face of it, to a tiny part of the anti-war movement.
Strangest of all is the chapter focused on Gerry Healy, a cultish, unpleasant leader of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, which took Iraqi and Libyan money in return for favourable propaganda. The relevance to today’s Left? Apparently none, because “the WRP’s support for Baathism was a one-off, which no other left-wing group imitated” (p 68).
Not much easier to understand is the inclusion of chapters on post-modernism, “Tories Against the War” (in Bosnia) and conspiracy theories. Post-modernism, for Cohen, marks a denial of objective reality, a retreat from genuine political action to pseudo-radical verbalizing. “The story of how political defeat took the radical Sixties left into the wilderness of post-modernism has been told many times,” he announces (p 106). And he’s right: the bulk of his choice absurdities appeared in either Francis Wheen’s How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World or a blog called Butterflies and Wheels. Both receive a mention as sources, but it’s hard to see his research as better than lazy. Did he even read Afzar Hussain’s review, about which he says so much? Everything he quotes appears on Butterflies and Wheels, including the missing italics (as Aaronovitch Watch pointed out).
By contrast, we can be sure he read Francis Wheen’s book. Cohen’s accounts of the Sokal hoax and Luce Irigaray’s claims regarding relativity both supply no details beyond it. His quote from Foucault regarding the Iranian revolution is also given there. As is his quotation of Michael Moore. In a similar way, much of what Cohen has to say on 1930s appeasement, in particular on pacifist Labour leader George Lansbury, bears a haunting similarity to Oliver Kamm’s Anti-Totalitarianism. The impression of second-hand scholarship is inescapable by the time one finds Cohen retailing an account of collaborationist French Socialists from Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism.
Like so many muscular liberals before him, Cohen feels obliged to attack Noam Chomsky. Where does he turn for material? Why, Francis Wheen and Oliver Kamm of course (maybe Terror and Liberalism wasn’t handy when he wrote this section). And what about an introductory quotation, ideally bespeaking of literary breadth? Well, one suspects he consulted Christopher Hitchens’s 1985 essay defending Chomsky, The Chorus and Cassandra. At least, he probably read the introductory paragraph and quotation, which are nearly identical – the rest seems to have passed him by.
Two of his mouldering allegations – regarding Faurisson and the Khmer Rouge – were dealt with twenty years ago, in Hitchens’s essay, although Oliver Kamm has given them a regular outing in recent years, and Wheen included the second in his book. It is hard to see what Cohen believes he is adding. It is also hard to know why he felt able to so blithely ignore Hitchens’s case for the defence.
A third accusation is not new either. It was aired first by Oliver Kamm, who was at the time in contact with Cohen about related material. Back then, Cohen supplied Kamm with a selection of media cuttings that supposedly showed Chomsky had misrepresented an expert witness, Philip Knightley, speaking at the LM vs. ITN libel trial about a photograph of the Trnopolje camp. Kamm, and one assumes Cohen, have since been made aware that Chomsky did not in fact substantively misrepresent Knightley. Kamm had either not read, or had simply ignored, what Knightley had said at the trial. Nevertheless, he refused to correct what he’d written. (Kamm is credited, hilariously in the circumstances, with “clear[ing] away many misconceptions” and “advice on the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts”.)
The absence of the Knightley claim in Cohen’s book is probably the closest we’ll come to an admission of error from the Kamm-Cohen party. But that does not stop Cohen mentioning the camp, or the interview in which Kamm said Chomsky had been so dishonest. He has all the background material; it’s just that the case is now reduced to malign insinuation. Cohen leaves the implication hanging in the air that Chomsky was denying the proven reality of the Trnopolje photograph, even though he doesn’t dispute Knightley’s testimony, or mention what the trial judge said on the matter. Rather, he appeals to the authority of a geography professor, David Campbell, to show that LM “didn’t fight” because it had “no honest evidence”. It is certainly true that ITN won their case against LM, and the Guardian journalist Ed Vulliamy duly celebrated this apparent vindication of his reporting, but anyone acquainted with Britain’s libel laws would know the connection was weak at best.
As a side note, one might consider Cohen et al.’s fitful commitment to free speech. Cohen, for instance, avers that “[f]reedom of speech includes the freedom to lie and defame” (p 164). But he has nothing to say on LM’s lack of freedom to say what they thought about Trnopolje. Kamm (“a near-absolutist on matters of free speech”) went as far as approvingly quoting Vulliamy saying “history… is thankfully built not upon public relations or melodrama but upon truth; if necessary, truth established by law”. One wonders, as Cohen thunders about Said Qutb or Michael Aflaq’s hatred of free society, just where he really stands.
And so it goes on. Chomsky went on about East Timor when a Western-backed Indonesian government was massacring the inhabitants. So Cohen complains that Chomsky “had nothing to say to the East Timorese on what they should do after Australian and British troops infuriated Osama bin Laden by ending the terror in 1999” (p 161). Was he obliged to send a congratulatory telegram? Hail the West for stepping in 24 years after the slaughter began? For it isn’t as if Chomsky had nothing to say about East Timor after the intervention. A cursory Internet search reveals, among other things, an article titled “East Timor Is Not Yesterday's Story”, written after INTERFET arrived. But then, at times Cohen’s approach to facts is hardly different from what he detests in post-modern theorists.
If reality trumped rhetoric he wouldn’t malignantly distort the case of the Guardian’s October 31st 2005 interview with Chomsky, conducted by Emma Brockes. The interview alleged, among other things, that Chomsky liked to put the word “massacre” in quotation marks when talking of Srebrenica, as if to say there had been no massacre. He hadn’t done this, which the Guardian Readers’ Editor, Ian Mayes, recognised. A correction was printed and the interview was withdrawn from the Guardian website.
For post-modernist Cohen, unanchored to facts, the interview became a “piece on leftist denial of crimes against humanity” (p 179). It didn’t damagingly misrepresent what Chomsky had said; it was just “poorly subbed”. A flood of “[j]ournalists, survivors of the camps, UN workers in the Balkans and Britain’s foremost academic authorities were appalled” and apparently urged Mayes to reconsider, but he cruelly “slapped down the survivors and their allies” by recognising Chomsky’s right not to be misrepresented. Oddly, the only complainants Mayes thought worthy of mention in his piece on the correction, among all those UN workers and academics, were Oliver Kamm, Francis Wheen and David Aaronovitch. The substance of their complaint? Hammer of post-modernism Wheen, upholder of objective truth Kamm, both put their names to a letter that didn’t dispute that Chomsky had not said what Brockes said he’d said; it just lamely concluded she was “certainly entitled” to her “interpretation”.
Why might Mayes have acted so unfeelingly towards Emma Brockes’s “interpretative validity”? Ah, that would be down, not to the substance of the complaint – that doesn’t interest Cohen – but Mayes’s middle class orthodoxy. It’s all tied up with Virginia Woolf and Bernard Shaw and H.G.Wells and eugenics and bien pensant Bloomsbury dinner parties, you see. For here we reach the title page of the “What Do We Do Now?” chapter. Give up, would be my answer to any reader lucky enough not to have already wasted their time on that thirty-three page collage of pseudo-populist clichés.
Having alerted us to the iniquitous snobbery of the Bloomsbury set (p 192), having treated us to not “wholly wrong” Daily Mail attitudes on the social collapse betokened by vanishing work ethics and “common decency” (p 197), having implied but never said that maybe mothers should stay at home after all (p 200), he comes out and says, “the intellectuals weren’t interested in the working class” (p 208). Cohen isn’t an intellectual, of course, just as Melanie Phillips isn’t part of the hated “elite” – it just looks that way. But if he were, one might ask just how much interest he has in the working class. He’s fascinated by certain unionised workers in Iraq and Iran being tyrannised by George Bush’s enemies. But when did he, for instance, ever mention the Gate Gourmet dispute in the UK? As far as I can tell, he did so once – offhandedly comparing their plight favourably to impoverished lawyers.
It’s the kind of chapter that one can read, and re-read, and yet never understand what it says or why it was written. The stumbling efforts to link it to Iraq are reminiscent of the last minutes of a drunken anecdote from someone who’s trying to remember the punch-line. For instance, Cohen apparently suggests liberals opposed the war because some Virginia Woolf-like contempt for the “common man” meant they didn’t care if Saddam tortured him (p 193-194). And that in turn is because these Balsamic-fixated Bloomsbury ponces wrinkle their noses at East End council estate residents who spend their days picking up bankers’ sandwiches in Canary Wharf – a job forced on them when their matriarchal coping systems were atomised by the welfare state and interfering social workers (p 199-200), or Guardianista gay rights programmes, or identity politics (p 196). As a consequence, these disaffected workers voted in Thatcher and Reagan (p 196), further irritating the liberal elites, now itching to revenge themselves by leaving Iraqis under tyranny. Or something. Does it even matter? Even to Cohen?
Cohen’s book is, generally, a combination of elliptical, impenetrable speculation and definite, wrong, claims. The evidence of the latter is endless – I simply can’t include it all – but since Cohen is so persistent on the subject it would be remiss not to consider yet more of his farcical smear campaign against the “far left”. Dull as this may be, the book is duller, believe me.
Cohen quotes Edward Said (LRB, April 2003) on the 1981 bombing of the Iraqi Osirak reactor: “Iraq ‘was the one Arab country with the human and natural resources, as well as the infrastructure, to take on Israel's arrogant brutality. That is why Begin bombed Iraq pre-emptively in 1981, supplying a model for the US in its own pre-emptive war.’” (p 76)
Cohen’s interpretation? “Because Said believed Saddam could one day have the men and munitions to take on Israel, the war against him had to be the result of a sinister plot by Jewish puppet masters who pulled the strings of American policy.” (p 77)
Too bad the sentence before the one quoted says “Iraq might once have been a potential challenge to Israel.” Never mind that it follows a paragraph saying, “[T]hat after 12 years of sanctions it [Iraq] is a threat of any kind to any other state is a laughable notion.” For Cohen’s nodding donkey supporters, he’s done enough, even if it does mean ignoring swathes of his source material and instead relying on arbitrary conspiracist aspersions. Said thinks Israel influenced US policy? Oh, that must imply “a sinister plot by Jewish puppet masters” then. (An “excellent” book,” says Kamm. A “mordant and instructive polemic,” says Hitchens.)
At times it seems as if a Cohen pronouncement defines reality for him. It becomes hard to distinguish slack writing from deliberate smear. On the 9/11 hijackers he says:
“[Edward] Said couldn’t manage a word of condemnation of the ideology and the methods of the suicide bombers.” (p 274)
Cohen’s first Observer column after that event appeared alongside one by Edward Said. Said’s piece referred to the “spectacular horror” of “terror missions without political message, senseless destruction.” It spoke of “the genuine sorrow and affliction that so much carnage has so cruelly imposed on so many.” “No cause, no God, no abstract idea can justify the mass slaughter of innocents,” he went on. Their “quick bloody solutions” were “wrapped in lying religious claptrap.” Evidently Cohen doesn’t read his own paper – that or he’s just relying on the inability of a dead man to defend himself.
The Makiya connection is strange, too. For Cohen, Kenan Makiya was “An Iraqi Solzhenitsyn”, who warranted our support, so Said’s “vilification” of him was unconscionable in 2003. In the intervening years, Makiya’s claim that a pacific federal Iraq would emerge from the invasion has been definitively shown to be wrong. Whether or not Makiya’s battle against anti-democratic planning for Iraq was hampered by missing liberal-left support, his speculations about a post-Saddam Iraq were plainly unrealistic. Many of Said’s objections were valid, as is now obvious. Contrary to Makiya’s wish, the US was bound to initiate the invasion with a bombing campaign. Contrary to Makiya’s assertion, there was no evidence that Iraqis were broadly committed to federalism. Makiya’s vision of a “non-Arab” Iraqi state was a mirage.
Given Makiya’s disconnection from the Arab world, and his basic inexperience of Arab politics – both pointed out by Said – why did anybody take his claims so seriously, even in 2003? Presumably because, as Said also suggested, he was saying what the US war party wanted to hear. This has since been confirmed by George Packer’s Assassins’ Gate, which Cohen himself cites. Far more baffling is that anybody now would defend Makiya’s predictions for Iraq, after all that followed the invasion, and after the publication of Packer’s book. Why does Cohen devote so much space to him when even he admits the “hard-headed” Makiya ludicrously believed that the invaders would be greeted by “sweets and flowers” (p 286)? Why does Cohen still write off Said’s accurate critique as “incontinent abuse” (p 75)?
Perhaps it’s because Cohen’s favourite source, aside from friends’ books and congenial blogs, is his old newspaper columns. As if determined to include all the material from his outdated Said attack piece, Cohen goes on to include the next point, about Harold Pinter. In 2003 he felt Harold Pinter had abandoned the concern shown for the Kurds in his 1988 play Mountain Language, about a people whose language had been banned, just as Kurdish had been banned in Turkey. Pinter “refused to hear the mountain tongue he had once defended” when… well, when Iraqi Kurds, who hadn’t had their language banned, and weren’t culturally persecuted in their autonomous zone, pushed for the invasion. The same point, with the same quotation, is regurgitated in the book, except with Iraqis now also motivating the play. But Cohen does not explain why Pinter’s behaviour is so suspect. Iraqi Kurds in 2003 weren’t in the same position as they were in 1988, or in the same position as Turkish Kurds under government repression. Even given their enthusiasm for the invasion, their voice was hardly the only one within Iraq.
So we have the Chomsky-Said-Pinter axis disgraced. We’ve ridiculed the post-modernists. We’ve talked about the splinter-of-a-splinter group, the Workers Revolutionary Party. We’ve wheeled out the Daily Mail theory of political alienation. Where next? Ah yes, the awfulness of the anti-war marchers.
Since publication, Cohen has insisted that he isn’t simply tarring all protesters with the antics of George Galloway (he devotes a page and a half to Galloway’s appearance on Celebrity Big Brother). He initially suggests the million marchers were led astray: “They were good people on the whole, who hadn’t thought about the Baath Party.” (p 282)
The masses’ simple-mindedness was their reason for protesting the war, Cohen implies; but their unhealthily jolly protests did not, it would seem, necessarily discredit them:
“The anti-war movement disgraced itself not because it was against the war in Iraq, but because it could not oppose the counter-revolution once the war was over.” (p 288)
If they had counter-posed a protest at their own government – a protest that at least theoretically might have led to a change in policy – with a protest aimed at Islamists and Baathists slaughtering Iraqis and foreign troops then they would have avoided Cohen’s displeasure, or at least his outright contempt. How such a protest would have been anything but pointless, given the killers’ contempt for free speech and democracy documented by Cohen on page 287, is not explained. But somehow, if the poor deluded marchers had taken on Zarqawi with their placards, everything would have been alright.
Or perhaps not; perhaps they had to avoid any association with Galloway and the Muslim Association of Britain as well. After all, Cohen sternly reminds us they “had joined marches led by a saluter of a genocidal tyrant” (p 291). “Needs must when the Devil drives”, Cohen says of Makiya’s alliance with the neo-cons (p 85). But the principle doesn’t seem to apply to those against the war – at least not when Cohen has used the remarkable phenomenon of fringe magnification to detect “trends”. “A theme of this book,” he intones on page 294, “is that ideas on the fringe are worth examining.” “[T]he extreme parties magnify trends in wider society,” he goes on. What trend might the SWP be magnifying? “Opportunism and control-freakery”, apparently (p 295). The mechanism isn’t clear, but it probably involves yuppie sandwiches.
Is the Left generally keen to endorse Islamism? If so, Cohen provides only counter-evidence. The story goes that the Left, tired of their faltering grasp on the masses, seized on Islamist antipathy towards America and globalisation to reinvigorate the march toward revolution. Cohen cites a 1994 article in the International Socialism Journal suggesting the SWP were hoping to win young Islamists to “a different, independent, revolutionary socialist perspective”. This “daydream”, we are told, might not be what they were really after. Perhaps, speculates Cohen, they “just wanted to ally with the real threat to the established order.” (p 309) Well, perhaps not, if he means they wanted to promote Islamist ideology. What Cohen cites, after all, points in the opposite direction – but there he goes again with his textual deconstruction.
In any case, all the talk of the “communalist” SWP and George Galloway was, one finds in Cohen’s hysterically-named chapter, “The Liberals Go Beserk”, not the worst stain on the Left’s credibility. Even if the dumb marchers hadn’t tolerated SWP/MAB fanatics in their midst, Cohen wouldn’t have been satisfied. “[L]iberals,” he announces, “were in danger of becoming ridiculous.” (p 312) This danger arose primarily from campaigners’ “legalistic” approach to the Iraq War.
The threat was raised in Robert Kagan’s paean to American militarism, Paradise and Power, which Cohen approvingly quotes. Wimpish European liberals had no credible force of their own, but they could hurt America by denying its military adventurism their imprimatur. This they did, apparently, by declaring the Iraq war was “illegal”. The Iraq war’s illegality was not a fact of international law, endorsed by the majority of qualified lawyers, but a construct from a “postmodern” Europe cowering hypocritically under the American umbrella (p 316). Horrifyingly, this “play[ing] at judges and lawyers” might, in Kagan’s words, “become debilitating and perhaps even paralyzing”. Cohen is clear that things are worse even than this, reaching a conclusion perhaps “too scandalous” for Kagan’s imagination. The scarcely imaginable harvest from “pretending that it was illegal to overthrow a genocidal regime”? “The insurgents were able to use the liberal’s slogans.” (p 317) He has an image of suicide bombers crashing through the streets of Baghdad, screaming, “it’s illegal!” No really, he does.
While it wasn’t a “disgrace” to oppose the war, one couldn’t go as far as denying the war had “a degree of legitimacy” (p 315). That was, in the White House formulation that Cohen echoes, giving “aid and comfort” to the enemy (in his Chomsky essay, Hitchens refers to “the old Stalinist ‘aid and comfort’ ruse”, but one assumes he’s discarded that view). Cohen’s analysis has him pushing aside the bruschetta sissies and stepping outside: “[T]he mainstream European left didn’t want to participate in a war to overthrow Saddam themselves, as was their right, but they also wanted to deny the legitimacy of others who were prepared to fight.” This was apparently not their right. The thought that the Left opposed the war because they viewed it as illegitimate and dangerous is seemingly beyond even the imagination of Cohen. They had to be motivated by cowardice.
After all the filler and flimflam, one finally discovers what actually seems to be Cohen’s main point. It’s the simple idea that technocratic fault-finding applied to Western wars is acceptable, while fundamental criticism isn’t. Chomsky wrote about this notion among liberals long ago in American Power and the New Mandarins, which Cohen cites. Of course, whether he read it, or understood it, is another matter.
Aside from this, there is only the related accusation of anti-American bad faith. For instance, Cohen complains of the Left’s fixation on Israel, at their unwillingness to extend the same criticism to other regimes. But, as elsewhere when lamenting the lack of anti-Saddam banners at the anti-war marches, and in his attacks on Chomsky’s selective criticism, he misses the obvious point: people are likely to, and indeed have a greater obligation to, criticise their own regime and its allies. Not only do they bear some responsibility for their actions, but they have some chance of changing them. Cohen could of course criticise this argument, but he doesn’t even acknowledge it.
Underlying all he says on the Iraq War is a basic refusal to address anything happening there beyond what involves his favoured pro-occupation trade unionists (he ignores anti-occupation trade unionists). He rants that millions marched against the “overthrow of a fascist regime” (p 280), but he never suggests they marched against 600000 deaths. In fact he contrives to suggest those horrors are partly the fault of those who opposed ever setting them in train, because they allegedly refused “solidarity” to people in Iraq. He accepts the standard narrative that the WMD intelligence was flawed, that the Bush administration made “mistakes”, but was Cohen wrong on anything? We hear nothing of it. Someone unacquainted with the Iraq War would come away with no idea of what has happened there in the last four years. This crashing silence is the only way Cohen can pursue what is on the face of it an absurd project: an attack on the Left based on their rejection of a disastrous war.
So, is there anything good or promising about the Left? Not much. Cohen’s OK with some environmental campaigning, even if he is dismissive of Green parties’ supposedly utopian fantasies (see p 294). The campaign for civil liberties could be good, but is of course “compromised by the refusal of many to stand up for the civil liberties of those who are oppressed by the various anti-Western tyrannies and terrorist movements.” (p 356) Some sort of nationalisation in unspecified “poor world” countries “may be for the better” (p 357) but might be spoiled by corruption.
After that, he’s “struggling”. In fact, the only glimmer on the horizon is the Euston Manifesto. The need for Professor Norman Geras’s bizarrely self-important tract is in Cohen’s world “a symbol of the dismal state of liberal life”. Cohen feels the same way about his book. I would agree, if I thought the Left were hanging by the thread of what they have to say. A political movement depending for its survival on the maundering effusions of a retired “professor of government” and the hallucinatory mudslinging of Cohen would obviously be doomed.
Fortunately, things aren’t like that. Although Cohen complains that the anti-capitalists lack a political programme (p 118-119), he never presents one himself. What little he says about economics is confined to asserting the victory of Thatcherite capitalism. The Euston Manifesto manages only platitudes on Make Poverty History. As far as they have anything to say on policy, the manifesto and What’s Left? are essentially Blairite. So one can discard immediately Cohen’s wails about the “stifling conformity of respectable liberal opinion” (p 182) shutting out his ideas. They are promoted by the nominally left-wing government in power.
Cohen’s book is fairly obviously not about the Left, but about Cohen and his clique of progressive bombardiers. It is ultimately directed at salvaging various “decent Left” reputations from the damage of the Iraq War, by blowing out smoke and crying foul about other people’s bad faith. For Cohen, the crime of the anti-war Left was not dallying with reactionary Muslims, or their tenuous association with post-modern gibberish, or the countless other accusations scribbled on the charge sheet, but being right about the war. If he illustrates any problem of the Left, it is that it gives people like Cohen such an easy ride.