Taking Issue: Nick Cohen on What’s Left

Taking Issue: Nick Cohen on What’s Left


[Johann Hari published “Choosing Sides” in Dissent‘s Summer 2007 Issue. The following debate between Nick Cohen and Johann Hari will appear in the forthcoming Fall 2007 Issue. –The Editors]

MY BOOK What’s Left? is about deceit and the rich world’s left, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the most deceitful piece to be written about it in any journal in any country should appear in a magazine of the intellectual left produced in New York (“Choosing Sides,” by Johann Hari). As readers were not given an honest account of its contents, I should begin by saying that I ask how wealthy socialists, liberals, and feminists in Europe and North America came to turn their backs on the victims of movements that in their misogyny, homophobia, and racism represented everything the left is against—or says it’s against. I ask whether the betrayals are merely a product of a justifiable revulsion against the Bush presidency that will go when he’s gone or whether there are deeper and more uncomfortable causes that call into question what it means to be left wing today.

When presented with an uncomfortable argument, serious editors usually invite a critic to present a clear account of what is said, correct mistakes, and argue with interpretations and extrapolations. The trouble with looking for a critic in the British media is that normal intellectual standards are collapsing over here. At this writing, even the once-respected BBC has admitted to fixing competitions and deceiving its viewers as a matter of routine. The behavior of much of the press is worse, and if you trawl what used to be called Fleet Street for a reviewer you run the risk of picking up Johann Hari, who from almost the first paragraph of his piece in your last issue, misleads your readers.

I was, I am told, brought up by left-wing parents who raised me “to see Orwell in Catalonia as his moral archetype.” Their indoctrination, apparently, makes me confront all great issues with the question, “what would Orwell do?”

As if.

I make clear in the introduction that my parents were ex-communists who remained conventional members of the late-twentieth-century left. They didn’t “raise me” to see Orwell as “a moral archetype.” Indeed, I’m not sure that they ever read Orwell themselves. If they had, they would have hated his argument about totalitarianism because, as I say again in the introduction, they did not see a moral equivalence between communism and Nazism. For my part, it’s true that I did start Homage to Catalonia a few years ago, but to my shame I never finished it. I would no more ask “What would Orwell do?” than I would “What would Jesus do?”

Hari makes up these stories about my mother and father solely so he can declare that I am an “ostentatious claimant of George Orwell’s mantle.” This would indeed be a preposterously self-aggrandizing claim to make if I had ever made it. But I haven’t, in print or in private.

Having misrepresented my parents, he goes on to misrepresent my book. Readers of his review will have no idea that it is a history from 1968 through to the present. It looks at how Anglo-American leftists took up the left-wing opponents of Baathism when Saddam was America’s ally, but dumped them in 1990 when Saddam became America’s enemy. Opposition to America was more important to them than opposition to totalitarian regimes of the extreme right, and I argue that with socialism—which had defined what it had meant to be left wing from the 1880s to the 1980s–gone, such betrayals became commonplace.

The old political order that saw religious sectarianism, extreme nationalism, or fascism as the worst possible forces in society was replaced by a new vision that saw the global “hegemon” or neoliberalism or just America—as the left’s main enemy. Two results followed: any force, however far to the right, could be excused or even supported as long as it was anti-Western; and, by converse, the victims of these movements and regimes could be ignored or branded as “quislings” if they said that liberal democracy was preferable to their present miserable state.

I move on to look at how postmodernism makes it next to impossible to condemn sexist, homophobic, and racist movements in other cultures and illustrate the limits of soft power by showing how a pacific European Union, which daily announced its commitment to human rights, stood by and allowed the Bosnian massacres to take place just over its borders. I take a pop at the friends of Noam Chomsky who deny the slaughter in the Bosnian camps in exactly the same manner as neo-Nazis deny the existence Adolf Hitler’s concentration camps and think about the reasons why liberal intellectuals thought that the tide of history was turning against them at the end of the twentieth century—a feeling that, I suspect, may have troubled many a reader of Dissent.

THE SECOND HALF runs from September 11, 2001, to the present, beginning with the instant willingness of leftists to excuse Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, on through the inability of the British Liberal Democrats and European Social Democrats to oppose George W. Bush while supporting a free Iraq, the growth of polite anti-Semitism, and the propensity of liberals everywhere to portray a global clerical fascist movement as a rational response to Western provocation.

In short, it’s a big book, which I’m sure has many faults. However, I searched in vain to find them criticized in Dissent. Instead of upbraiding me for what I wrote, Hari attacks a fairy tale, which no one has written or could write

He accuses me of pretending that modern Islamism and other totalitarian movements do not have a rational basis but leap fully armed into the world as it were. Apparently, I “claim that jihadism has no root causes at all and that anybody who suggests otherwise is ‘appeasing fascists,’”

Not so, what I say is,

Once you have exhausted all comprehensible reasons for a great crime there remains a gap. The ‘root causes’ take you to its edge, but then wave goodbye and leave you peering into an unfathomable abyss. The famines Stalin, Mao and the Ethiopian colonels unleashed, Pol Pot’s extermination of anyone who could read or write or Hitler’s annihilation of the Jews, gypsies, gays and Slavs, Saddam’s regime of torture and genocide and the Islamist cult of death aren’t rationally explicable. You can cross over to the other side of the abyss only if you shrug off your reasonable liberal belief that every consequence has an understandable cause and accept that enthusiasm for the ideologies of absolute power isn’t always rationally explicable.

Alert readers will be aware of the distinction between necessary and sufficient causes and will know that there is a world of difference between arguing that, for instance, the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles are not a sufficient explanation for the ferocity of Nazism and saying that they are no part of an explanation. (Incidentally, I’ve just done a computer search of the text of the book, and nowhere in it do I use the phrase “appeasing fascists,” which Hari puts in quote marks with such confidence.)

I am then accused of making my “most shocking claim,” that “the United States was right to support Saddam in the 1980s because it was the only way to stop the Islamic revolution.”
Not so, what I say is,

Instead of fighting the Islamic revolution themselves, Britain and America were happy for a fascistic despot to do its fighting for them. There was no complaint when Saddam acquired between 2,000 and 4,000 tons of chemical agents; no real protest beyond mealy-mouthed mutterings when he used them to kill about 50,000 Iranian soldiers. Donald Rumsfeld went to Baghdad in 1984 to assure the Baathists that what condemnations there had been were for form’s sake and should not be taken personally. To stop the Islamic revolution spreading, the West was prepared to hold its tongue.

Alert readers will notice that I am not arguing that the United States was right to support Saddam, and that I am, in fact, arguing the exact oppositeFor more on this subject the author has suggested the following blog: Oliver Kamm on the Cohen-Hari argument.

I’m then accused of having a blind faith “neoconservatism.” Not so again. What I say when I get to the stage in the narrative when desperate Iraqi opposition leaders turn to the Republicans is this:

The Republicans had been out of the White House in the Nineties. Most of the party’s senior figures had treated the decade’s debates on humanitarian intervention and failed states with derision, and opposed the wars to stop ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia as bleeding heart indulgences. They hadn’t thought about the mass migration of refugees, chemical weapons in the hands of terrorists and global crime. They hadn’t come to terms with the new age of warfare where the infantry had to be soldiers one minute and police officers the next…Needs must when the Devil drives, but the Republicans weren’t the best generals to follow into battle.

Is that “blind faith in neoconservatism”? I’ll leave it for alert readers to judge. I could go on and on—Hari’s pretense that only a few deracinated Trotskyists are indulging the far right would be laughable if it weren’t so blind—but I’m running out of space and patience, and it’s time to ask what this nervous breakdown in print is all about.

The wider political context is that leftists believe that anything goes in the wreckage of the Bush administration. The puritan in me wants to warn Americans who echo Hari’s screams that the Republicans will triumph yet again in 2008 if they think that hysterical abuse will be enough to dislodge them. In the specific context of Hari’s assault on me, the joke of it all is that Hari was a noisy supporter of the second Iraq War for good reasons, although even the most alert reader of Dissent could have blinked and missed his acknowledgment of his history as a warmonger. He then recanted and regretted his previous position equally loudly and for equally good reasons. He is now ingratiating himself with his new friends by accusing his former friends of all manner of imaginary crimes because we did not do as he did.

So Maoist are his demands for self-criticism that I had the perhaps unworthy feeling as I read him that his abuse was directed at his earlier self—it certainly had next to nothing to do with me. His main charge seems to be that Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, and I are at fault for believing that neoconservatism marked a break with Henry Kissinger’s “realist” approach to foreign policy. For what it’s worth, I thought then and think now that it did, and can cite just about every expert on foreign affairs to my side of the argument. That doesn’t, of course, make the second Iraq War any less of a disaster. The point of What’s Left? is that the world crisis since September 11, 2001, also marked a break with the best leftish traditions. Once more, and I’m sorry to go on about Hari’s deceit, I say very clearly that

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. A principled left that still had life in it and a liberalism that meant what it said might have remained ferociously critical of the American and British governments while offering support to Iraqis who wanted the freedoms they enjoyed.

In other words, what kind of left is it that shrugs as Iraqi trade unionists are butchered or Iranian feminists are persecuted? Why couldn’t it oppose Bush while sticking by its friends? For the record, I have written many pieces about civil liberties and Guantanámo Bay, but Hari is right on one point: I have concentrated on what has happened to the left on the grounds of the efficient division of labor. For I don’t have the power to turn the clock back and return Saddam Hussein to office, and wouldn’t if I could, although there is much else I would do differently. However, I can try to stop the worst traditions of fellow-traveling with totalitarianism from creeping out of its tombs.

Every now and again Hari manages to shake himself out of his world of make-believe and acknowledge that we’re up against a fascist enemy. In these circumstances, surely the only sensible position for people who call themselves leftists is to support those democrats who are fighting the far right in the Middle East and beyond, regardless of whether we find ourselves on the same side as the governments of America and Britain or not.

I’m glad to say that others feel the same way, and across Europe there is a liberal revivalist movement, whose members know full well that Tony Blair is history and George W. Bush will be history soon, but that we will continue to face Islamists who are against everything our ancestors won. You can see the movement stirring among the trade unionists who hate the second Iraq War but are sticking by their Iraqi comrades, in the British Muslim writers who are warning the left that it cannot reduce a global wave of apocalyptic violence to the faults of Western powers, in Bernard Kouchner’s foreign ministry in Paris, and, possibly, in David Miliband’s Foreign Office in London, although it is too early to be certain.

As I said, there are many criticisms that can be made of their analysis and mine. But for criticism to have intellectual integrity, the critic must present an honest summary of the ideas he is attacking. If he doesn’t, he produces propaganda. Maybe I’m naïve, but I’m genuinely surprised that the editors of Dissent need to be told this.

>>Read “Choosing Sides” by Johann Hari
>>Read Johann Hari’s Response to Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen is the author of What’s Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way (Fourth Estate, 2007) and a columnist for the Observer and the New Statesman. To read excerpts from What’s Left?, click here and here.