Left Out

What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way by Nick Cohen, Fourth Estate, London, 405 pages, 12.99 pounds sterling

Nick Cohen is a child of the left. When he was 13, a teacher he admired told him that he was a Conservative. Cohen was bewildered. Nice people did not vote Tory; it was as simple as that. The adult Cohen has not changed his allegiance but, as the title "What's Left?" implies, he has begun to question what it means today to be of the left. The book's title can be interpreted in another way too, for Cohen is also asking what remains of the left. What became of the left that he once knew?

Cohen writes a column for the Observer, the Sunday stable companion of the Guardian. He also contributes regularly to the socialist weekly the New Statesman. He must find these two left-of-center newspapers increasingly uncomfortable homes because Cohen has parted ways with the mainstream British left over one defining cause: the war in Iraq. With other like-minded progressives, he is a signatory to the Euston Manifesto.

This declaration of principles signed by a group of the democratic left in Britain includes both supporters and opponents of the Iraq War but asserts that "we must define ourselves against those for whom the entire progressive-democratic agenda has been subordinated to a blanket and simplistic 'anti-imperialism' and/or hostility to the current U.S. administration." This, in effect, is the thrust of Cohen's book. Cohen would not have it that, in asking how liberals lost their way, he has abandoned the left, though many have accused him of apostasy.

His views on society are still dictated by his concern for the downtrodden, but he is aghast that his erstwhile comrades have entered into an unholy alliance with militant Islam, an ideology that stands for all that the liberal left ought to despise: the suppression of basic freedoms and the subjugation of women. Cohen has no quarrel with those who opposed the war against Iraq because they believed that it would end badly.

After all, it turned out that they were right. What he found hard to stomach was that so many on the left could not acknowledge that, in opposing the war, they were keeping in place one of the vilest regimes on the planet. On February 15, 2003, at least one million marched through the streets of London in a mass demonstration against the war. Not a single placard at that demonstration mentioned Saddam Hussein. Ian McEwan's novel "Saturday" takes place in its entirety on the day of that impressive march. The protagonist of the novel watches the march and wonders at its carnival atmosphere. Cohen quotes him as reflecting: "If they think - and they could be right - that continued tortures and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be somber in their view."

At least, thinks Cohen, these ostensible anti-fascists should have recognized that in demonstrating against the war, perhaps with justification, they were opposing the overthrow of a fascist regime. But there was worse to come. Once the Americans with their allies had defeated Saddam Hussein, liberals should have, in Cohen's view, put their weight behind the efforts to democratize the country and put down sectarian violence. But the opposite happened. By using the term "insurgency" for the sectarian anarchy that then engulfed Iraq, the liberal media painted the suicide terrorism of the Baathist and Islamist gangs as resistance to a foreign occupier.

Full revolution The wheel had turned full circle. In the 1980s, Cohen explains, it was the right that placated Saddam Hussein and the left that excoriated him. Now, consumed by its hatred of America, the left was as near as damn it cheering for the victory of a totalitarian regime that it had once honorably opposed.

Until then, he thought that the left had a fairly good record against fascism and totalitarianism, though he does not gloss over the appeasement of fascism and communism by soi disant progressives in the 20th century. Nor does he excuse the left for its part in the shameful European inactivity over the massacres carried out mainly by Serbs in the former Yugoslavia. But, on the whole, the left was, for Cohen, on the right side of most humanitarian issues of the century. Cohen believes that, in many ways, the victory of social democratic doctrines in the West - the welfare state, the almost universal legislation to promote equal rights for women, homosexuals and ethnic minorities - has compelled liberals to seek a fresh role.

The left had long hated racism, but it was only toward the end of the century that it fell into the trap of moral relativism. To criticize Islamists was racist and so, in its wholly praiseworthy abhorrence of racism, the left connived at the suppression of human rights in the non-Western world and painted itself into the anti-American corner in which it now finds itself. Much of all this has been said before, of course, but what makes Nick Cohen's book a good read are the wit and the sheer gusto with which he demolishes his targets. He believes in the power of ideas and he blames the obfuscatory character of postmodernist jargon for what he sees as the left's abandonment of reason.

Like Orwell before him, he regards clarity in writing as the best enemy of totalitarianism. He has knockabout fun with the failure of contemporary academics to communicate. Bad writing conceals bad ideas. He singles out a passage from a dreary academic article that seems to justify the Hindu practice of sati (suttee). That you cannot be sure whether the writer is for or against a widow flinging herself on her husband's funeral pyre is, for Cohen, a symptom of the new malady of the left.

Cohen is amusing too when he shies at such predictable Aunt Sallies as Harold Pinter, Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. But it is sad, though inevitable, that Cohen finds it necessary to note the fall from impartiality into moral equivalence of such a universally respected institution as Amnesty International. The prison camp at Guantanamo Bay is, goodness knows, a disgrace of which the United States should be ashamed. But Amnesty's comparison of Guantanamo Bay with Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago was an outrageous example of the relativism of which Cohen ceaselessly complains. No prisoner has been deliberately killed at the notorious American prison camp; untold millions perished in the Gulags. Anti-Semitism smites Cohen's family has not been Jewish for a century but, bearing the surname he does, it was inevitable that he fall victim to the anti-Semitism of the New Left. In February 2003, he wrote an article for the Observer in which he pointed out that the organizers of the mass march represented a merger of far left and far right.

The first e-mail he received was a sympathetic one from a fellow journalist that ended up with the warning: "You are not going to believe the anti-Semitism that is about to hit you." Until then, Cohen says - perhaps a little disingenuously - he did not believe that there was racism on the left. But then, he went through his e-mails and, as he says, "I couldn't believe the anti-Semitism that hit me." The anti-Semitism of the left that he encountered brought him to devote to it a chapter of the book. Cohen is no Zionist, but he recognizes anti-Semitism in much of the unbalanced criticism of Israel that today is common currency of the left.

On this subject I cannot resist quoting, without comment, an excerpt from the chapter on the Jews in "What's Left?":

"The moment when my bewilderment settled into a steady scorn came when the Guardian's online talkboards carried a discussion about me and another supporter of the war from the left with a Jewish name, which was entitled 'David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen Are Enough to Make a Good Man Anti-Semitic.' The political incorrectness was too much for one contributor. Rightly, she protested that naked bigotry infused the debate. The Guardian readers should have headlined it 'David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen Are Enough to Make a Good Man, or Woman, Anti-Semitic.'" For anyone who believes that it is still possible to be a liberal without condoning fascism, this is a timely book.