What's Left? : How the Left Lost Its Way, Paperback

What's Left? : How the Left Lost Its Way Paperback

4.5 out of 5 (3 ratings)


From the much-loved, witty and excoriating voice of journalist Nick Cohen, a powerful and irreverent dissection of the agonies, idiocies and compromises of mainstream liberal thought.

Nick Cohen comes from the Left. While growing up, his mother would search the supermarket shelves for politically reputable citrus fruit and despair.

When, at the age of 13, he found out that his kind and thoughtful English teacher voted Conservative, he nearly fell off his chair: 'To be good, you had to be on the Left.' Today he's no less confused.

When he looks around him, in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, he sees a community of Left-leaning liberals standing on their heads.

Why is it that apologies for a militant Islam that stands for everything the liberal-Left is against come from a section of the Left?

After the American and British wars in Bosnia and Kosovo against Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansers, why were men and women of the Left denying the existence of Serb concentration camps?

Why is Palestine a cause for the liberal-Left, but not, for instance, China, the Sudan, Zimbabwe or North Korea?Why can't those who say they support the Palestinian cause tell you what type of Palestine they would like to see?

After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington why were you as likely to read that a sinister conspiracy of Jews controlled American or British foreign policy in a liberal literary journal as in a neo-Nazi rag?

It's easy to know what the Left is fighting against - the evils of Bush and corporations - but what and, more to the point, who are they fighting for?

As he tours the follies of the Left, Nick Cohen asks us to reconsider what it means to be liberal in this confused and topsy-turvy time.

With the angry satire of Swift, he reclaims the values of democracy and solidarity that united the movement against fascism, and asks: What's Left?




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Review by

A brilliant book that demonstrates how the British left has lost its way and formed alliances with the Islamists and tyrants of the Middle East at the expense of the people who should be its natural allies - women, trade unionists, liberal intellectuals, and secularists.

Review by

"What's Left" is a crie de coeur from a man of the left who has come to believe that the principles have abandoned his position, and from that perspective it positively zings. Nick Cohen writes well - brutally - but fairly: he is still prepared, as he goes, to confront and acknowledge potential criticisms of his argument, valid alternative perspectives, and I think he realises that with this work he may have cooked his goose with a number of hitherto supportive readers. A valuable document, too, because Cohen still has left-wing credibility (but for how much longer, it remains to be seen) and so is sparking much needed debate in a way that a neo-con screed might not if it came from the pen of a traditional supporter of the moral right (pun intended). That said, I think "What's Left" will find support in all the places, and with all the people, Nick Cohen would least like it to: for the most part, they won't be on the political left. Though he doesn't say it explicitly, this does represent something of a conversion on the road to Damascus: I think after this work Cohen will be generally considered a neo-conservative: he expresses unqualified support for Paul Wolfowitz and is far less distressed by Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair or George Bush than one would expect from a child of the far left. What I think it boils down to is the subjectivism/objectivism debate. Cohen is an objectivist: he is prepared to say what he thinks is morally unacceptable, and is prepared to advocate whatever action or force is required to defeat the morally unacceptable. By contrast, many on the left are "under the evil spell" (as Cohen sees it) of cultural relativism and are not prepared to make that judgment about the regime in Iraq, but are perfectly prepared to make it about the political elite in Britain and the United States. Cohen cites Ian McEwen's recent novel, Saturday, which remarks about anti-war protesters: "... people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think - and they could be right - that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be sombre in their view." (p. 69) While I have a great deal of respect for his book and the passion with which he argues his case, I'm (unusually for me) with the lefties on this one. For a start I don't feel qualified, either in terms of facts at my disposal nor the necessary cultural, social or political understanding, and nor do I consider it my business, to judge the situation in Iraq. On the other hand I *do* feel qualified, as a participant in the political process, to express a view about my own government. Furthermore, the resources of my government, contributed by people like me through taxation, are limited, and I can see more productive uses to which they could be put: before we sort out Iraq's mess, there is plenty of our own we could be fixing. But more to the point - and this is a point that Cohen glosses over entirely - the government's case for war had nothing whatsoever to do with alleviating the Iraqi people from torture or summary execution: this was not a humanitarian intervention at all. It couldn't be - since to take on Iraq would provoke obvious follow on questions: if Saddam, why not Mugabe? How about Kim Jong Il? The war was sold to the electorate as a pre-emptive measure against a credible military threat to the west (either directly or through the encouragement and cultivation of terrorists). That case was not properly made at the time (hence, in large part, the anti-war demonstrations), and has transpired to have been erroneous. Nor has the war, which was prosecuted in spite of clear opposition in the electorate, been much of a success. Again, Cohen glosses over prescient warnings issued at the time that Iraq risked becoming another Vietnam, bogging the US army down in a close-quartered conflict with no obvious means of resolution. This, it seems to me, is exactly what happened, and the threat of terrorism and level of "Muslim angst" in western communities - which is surely fertile ground for new terrorists - is no lower than it has been since 9/11. For all that I really enjoyed this book, and found it challenging and thought provoking. John Mueller's Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats, and Why We Believe Them is an interesting counterpoint to "What's Left" - the two do not intersect on subject matter (Mueller restricts himself to terrorist threat; Cohen to the brutal governmental regime, and arguably the two are unrelated), but Mueller's skeptical view presents an interesting prism through which to consider Cohen's arguments.

Review by

An angry and eloquent attack on those who turn their attention away from perpetrators of atrocities, as many did when those made by Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein became undeniable, to find fault with the victims and their defenders. The book is named “What’s Left” indicating that the left, where the author claims to belong, once was something nobler than the cowardly hypocrisy that define them today, but much praise for the early left is not to be found. Rather he shows that Adolf Hitler once had a lot of “excusers” on the left as well.A few sentences struck me: “The neutral must believe that it doesn’t matter who wins.” And: “…if you believe that everyone in power is totalitarian, you needn’t worry about actual totalitarians, and already your neutrality is tipping over to the other side.” (This could well have been directed against Noam Chomsky, who gets his deserts elsewhere for defending the deniers of the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis, Pol Pot and Milosevic.) And this one: “Rather than listening to what Bin Laden was saying, leftist intellectuals adopted a stance for which I can find no precedent: they urged the appeasement of demands that hadn’t been made. They used Bin Laden as an ally to promote their own wish list and called for a limit to globalization, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank or a rerun of the disputed 2000 American Presidential election. The contrast with the Thirties isn’t flattering. Say what you like about the appeasers of Munich, but they studied Hitler even if they got him wrong. Their successors didn’t know what the Islamists wanted and didn’t want to find out.”Tony Blair, who used to receive a lot of kicks from Mr. Cohen, is cited twice from a BBC radio program, when being interrupted with: “Our idea of democracy.” Blair said: I didn’t know there was another idea of democracy.” Which sort of sums up a lot of the books arguments: judge everybody the same way, Eastern countries as our own. I think Cohen spends too much effort on denigrating George Galloway (one whole page on an undignified performance of his on the “Big Brother” show), as did the US senate, he surely can’t claim that anyone among the intellectual left saw a champion of their cause in him. I also think it is slightly indecent to suggest direct mental ties between parents and children in the Philby and Redgrave families, even when such seems to be apparent – every individual should be judged on her own. The book overall is a good one, recommended reading both for Tories and New Labour, but perhaps not for those further to the left.