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Nick Cohen vs. “The Left” (again … and again … and again) January 21, 2007

Posted by smiffy in Books, Iraq, Media and Journalism, The Left.

Nick Cohen used to be good. He used to be very good, in fact. Back in the mid-to-late 1990s, he was one of the few mainstream commentators willing to provide a sustained and comprehensive criticism of the New Labour project and of Blairism, as it went on to become known. At a time when most negative coverage of New Labour began and ended at a predictable discussion of ‘Spin’ and when most of the progressive media were still in love with the golden-boy who defeated the Tory Goliath, Cohen’s articles in the New Statesman, the Observer and elsewhere were must-read pieces dealing with corruption, links to big business and the reality and the detail of the neo-liberal policies being promoted by the newly installed government. Cruel Britannia and Pretty Straight Guys are still well worth getting a hold of, to see what good political journalism looks like.

Okay, now that the niceties are out of the way, and I’ve had my ‘throat-clearing moment’, he’s really gone nuts lately. As one of the most prominent ‘muscular liberals’ (Cohen chaired the meeting which launched the Euston Manifesto) he’s been steadfast in both his support for the Iraq War and his continuing contempt for ‘the Left’.

To be sure, he made quite a convincing left-wing case for intervention in 2003, not just in terms of anti-totalitarianism (even Oliver Kamm could manage that!) but also pointing to the need for solidarity with the Iraqi trades union movement. If the international Labour movement meant anything, he argued, it must mean supporting those organisation in Iraq under the fist of an oppressive, quasi-fascist regime. And anyone who hates George Galloway as much as Cohen does can’t be all bad.

Unfortunately, his recent criticism of ‘the Left’ displays none of the hallmarks of accuracy and detail which characterised his earlier work. As his denunciations of collaboration with fascism become more and more shrill, as well as more and more general, he risks becoming less a latter-day Orwell and more a latter-day Horowitz.

His attack on ‘the Left’ is the theme of his long (if not eagerly) awaited book, What’s Left?: How liberals lost their way. Due to be published in early February, it appears to be in stock at Amazon right now. Lengthy extracts from it appear in today’s Observer, and are worth a look until the full thing is available.

It’s pretty predictable stuff, in many ways, rehashing the old points about those who opposed the war abandoning the Iraqi people to tyranny. Persuasive, if not original. And, to be fair, he’s a little more nuanced in his attack on the anti-war marchers, giving Ariel Dorfman (reluctantly anti-invasion) a say indicating that perhaps not everyone who opposed the intervention were fans of Saddam’s courage, strength and indefatigability and didn’t get a kick out of the massacre of Kurds.

Still, there’s very little self-analysis in the piece. The anti-war protestors were still wrong, still objectively supporting fascism and the pro-interventionists were … well, Cohen doesn’t really get into whether they were right or not, just that they had the best of intentions. As I pointed out previously, this is a rather sneaky trick: ignoring the consequences of an action and focusing only on your own intentions, while attributing the basest of intentions to your opponents (e.g. supporting Ba’athism) based on the perceived consequence of their views being implemented.

I don’t intend to get into a sustained piece on Cohen right now. I’m interested in what his wider points about ‘the Left’ might be, so I’ll wait until the book arrives. One point raised in the extract today did, however, shock me and I can’t let it go unacknowledged. In describing the anti-war marches across Europe of March 2003 he writes:

On 15 February 2003, about a million liberal-minded people marched through London to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime. It was the biggest protest in British history, but it was dwarfed by the march to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime in Mussolini’s old capital of Rome, where about three million Italians joined what the Guinness Book of Records said was the largest anti-war rally ever. In Madrid, about 650,000 marched to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime in the biggest demonstration in Spain since the death of General Franco in 1975. In Berlin, the call to oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime brought demonstrators from 300 German towns and cities, some of them old enough to remember when Adolf Hitler ruled from the Reich Chancellery. In Greece, where the previous generation had overthrown a military junta, the police had to fire tear gas at leftists who were so angry at the prospect of a fascist regime being overthrown that they armed themselves with petrol bombs.

The French protests against the overthrow of a fascist regime went off without trouble. Between 100,000 and 200,000 French demonstrators stayed peaceful as they rallied in the Place de la Bastille, where in 1789 Parisian revolutionaries had stormed the dungeons of Louis XVI in the name of the universal rights of man.

In Ireland, Sinn Fein was in charge of the protests and produced the most remarkable spectacle of a remarkable day: a peace movement led by the IRA.

It’s not often one does a double-take when reading something in the paper but … what????

In Ireland, Sinn Fein was in charge of the protests and produced the most remarkable spectacle of a remarkable day: a peace movement led by the IRA.

I’m certainly no fan of Sinn Féin, or of the IRA, or of the mysterious but ubiquitous Sinn Féin/IRA, but anyone with the least grasp of the facts about the anti-war movement(s) in Ireland would know that that is simply not the case. Certainly Sinn Féin were involved with that march, as was virtually every other left-wing organisation in the country, including the Labour Party. Even Bertie Ahern got on the bandwagon, welcoming the march as an endorsement of government policy on the proposed invasion (a moment of such incredible brass neck that you couldn’t but admire it). If anyone could have been said to have ‘led’ the anti-war movement, I guess it would have been the SWP but only insofar as Richard Boyd Barrett was treated as a spokesperson for the marchers. The truth was that it was a broad-based movement which achieved something pretty spectacular that day, but which has fallen into some disarray and acrimony since then (as is inevitable with anything touched by the SWP).

Why then does Cohen get it so incredibly, startlingly wrong? It’s not the first time he’s come out with this kind of nonsense about SF. In a column of his from last May he compared the electoral successes of the British National Party with those of SF, suggesting that he knows absolutely about the politics of SF, the differences between Northern Ireland and the Republic and the reasons why people vote for that party.

One wonders where Cohen’s rather warped and uninformed opinion stems from. I can’t help but think that it might be influenced to some extent by Gary Kent. Kent is the director of Labour Friends of Iraq and, with Cohen, was one of the leading lights behind the Euston Manifesto. Not only that, but he was also a prominent British member of the Peace Train organisation. While the explicit objectives of that group might have been hard to disagree with, I always found that their view of ‘terrorism’ was a little skewed. It was a little hard to stomach watching them protest outside Sinn Féin meetings, while enjoying a far more harmonious relationship David Ervine (every self-respecting liberal’s favourite former paramilitary) and the Progressive Unionist Party.

Incidentally, there’s an interview with Kent on Little Atoms here, where he draws some rather tenuous parallels between the situation in Iraq and Northern Ireland, as well as having a rather exaggerated view of the achievements of the ‘Peace Movement’.

I don’t want to get into conspiracy theories, and start suggesting links between people which don’t exist. But while I mightn’t agree with much of Cohen’s analysis I’m staggered at such an incredible factual inaccuracy in the piece and can’t help but wonder where it came from. And hope that it’s not indicative of the rest of the book.


1. joemomma - January 21, 2007

Curse you smiffy, I was about to write about that! 😡 Must get my Observer in earlier next Sunday.

It’s possible that Cohen genuinely believes that SF were “in charge” of the Irish anti-war protests, perhaps having been told as much by someone he regards as credible, e.g. Kent. However, I’m afraid to say that my respect for Cohen has dipped so low as to make me think that this could simply be a rather flagrant piece of rhetorical dishonesty.

The repetition of “oppose the overthrow of a fascist regime” in that passage demonstrates that he’s not afraid to creatively misrepresent the motives of those opposed to the war, so it’s not too big a leap to think that he could misrepresent the facts of the Irish protests in order to develop his point.


2. WorldbyStorm - January 21, 2007

I really hope you’re wrong joemomma, because as smiffy notes Cohen was someone who was a fantastic dissenting voice in the 90s and early 2000s from the general New Labour project. I think that voice is still there, but if he has allowed this issue to dominate his thinking – and in fairness there are issues about the response of the left which bear consideration if not undermining the sincerity of those who took an anti-Iraq war position – then I think that’s a serious error, if only because in five or ten or fifteen years 2002/3 will be history (for better or worse) while the necessity for progressive politics will remain.


3. joemomma - January 21, 2007

“there are issues about the response of the left which bear consideration if not undermining the sincerity of those who took an anti-Iraq war position”

I very much agree with that, but as I’ve argued in the post linked above, I think that Cohen is largely ignoring these issues in favour of establishing that the left was wrong in 2003.


4. smiffy - January 21, 2007

Or, more to the point, why he was right, why he’s still right, and why those who supported the invasion are, of course, in no way culpable for what happened as a result of the invasion … LA LA LA NOT LISTENING NOT LISTENING LA LA LA CAN’T HEAR YOU LA LA!


5. WorldbyStorm - January 21, 2007

I should perhaps have said “while not undermining” rather than “if” which appears to call into question those who took the anti-war position which isn’t my intention.

But I agree with you, Cohen appears to want to establish the correctness of his position despite everything.


6. Frank Little - January 22, 2007

Just on the Sinn Féin thing, I was reading some stuff from the McCarthy HUAC meetings from the 50s, and struck a little about the assumption of how powerful the Communist Party USA was. The belief was that if ANY radical action took place, strikes, marches or sit-ins on anything from wages issues, voting rights for blacks etc. the Communists were behind it.

We have the same mentality in our media in Ireland. Rossport, bin charges, anti-war, Nice Treaty etc. All Sinn Féin ‘dominated’ or ‘led’ campaigns. Now, Sinn Féin were involved in all of those but, with the exception of Nice, didn’t dominate any of them and even there, other left wing analyses were put forward.

I believe there are two reasons for this. On the one hand, journalists believe people are stupid and unable to organise themselves. Consequently, if they do so, it must be because of the evil influences of outside agitators. In America, they used to call them Red. In Ireland, we call them Sinn Fein.

And on the other hand, the media is normally opposed to these kinds of campaigns. Associating a campaign with Sinn Féin in the mind of the reader, undermines that campaign if the reader is not a republican, or opposes republicanism.


7. Donagh - January 22, 2007

I’m afraid to say that my respect for Cohen has dipped so low as to make me think that this could simply be a rather flagrant piece of rhetorical dishonesty.
I’d suggest that joemomma is right here. But he could also be thinking of his audience. As no single group dominated the demonstrations the presence of Sinn Fein was enough for Cohen’s purposes. After all, SF still represent the ‘baddies’ in the minds of his British readership. That he should distort the intentions of the 2003 protestors (even if you consider those intentions misguided) suggests that he’s not particularly interested in accuracy.


8. joemomma - January 23, 2007

“Now, Sinn Féin were involved in all of those but, with the exception of Nice, didn’t dominate any of them and even there, other left wing analyses were put forward.”

I wouldn’t have said that SF dominated the Nice campaign either – the Greens were at least as prominent, and then there were the right-wing crazies.


9. Frank Little - January 23, 2007

I take the point on the right, I was speaking more in the context of who dominated or led the left side of the campaign since that was what Choen fixed on.

We’ll just have to agree to disagree on the Greens/SF thing. Certainly the Greens played a prominent role, especially in the media, but Sinn Féin is a bigger party with more resources and more people on the ground. They seemed to fight the only real progressive campaign door to door.

Worth pointing out as well that if you look at the biggest No vote margins in 2001, they were Kerry North, Dublin South West, Dublin Central, Dublin North West, both Donegals, while the two Yes voting constituencies were Dublin South and Dun Laoghaire. Those are Shinner areas compared to Green.

I’m not trying to run the Greens down, I think they played a crucial role in the campaign, just that from my perspective Sinn Féin dominated the progressive opposition to the Treaty, in part it must be said becuase people on the Yes side wanted to create that impression.


10. scrawled in crayon - January 23, 2007

It is certainly a bizarre claim – bizarre enough that it would instantly make you doubt Cohen’s factual credibility on other issues.

The anti-war movement in Ireland was (and on a diminished scale is) a complex beast. A range of anti-war groups existed and to varying degrees played a role in organising the various marches, protests and actions. The groups worth mentioning are:

The Irish Anti-War movement. This was by some distance the highest profile organisation and the one which put in most of the leg work in calling meetings and putting up posters. The dominant force in it is the SWP, but at various stages the Socialist Party and more “peacenik” or direct action focused independents also played a significant role. A number of trade unions are, rather passively, affiliated to it. Briefly the IAWM built a quite impressive number of local groups, almost all of which are now defunct. It currently consists of the SWP and a smaller set of independent activists closer to its views.

The Peace and Neutrality Alliance. PANA has existed for many years as a campaign group for Irish neutrality and it has the more or less passive affiliation of a range of “leftish” political parties. It jointly called the big marches with the IAWM and the NGO Peace Alliance, it provided speakers and stewards, but it was lower profile and much less active on the ground than the IAWM.

The NGO Peace Alliance. This was a group which was formed by a number of NGOs which had a falling out of some sort with the SWP when the IAWM was founded. It jointly called the big protests, but was otherwise almost invisible.

Grassroots Network Against War. GNAW was the vehicle of the more anarchoid direct action elements in the early stages of the anti-war movement. It’s highest profile action was an attempted mass tresspass at Shannon Airport. It has since faded away.

Anti-War Ireland. This is the organisation founded by the more direct action oriented elements of the IAWM after they fell out with the SWP. It is now the main organisational expression of the wing of the movement with that focus, although that focus seems to be more theoretical than practical given that there have been few if any direct action events on this issue in recent times.

Youth Against War. This was a group set up by Socialist Youth, the SP youth wing, chiefly to build an anti-war movement in schools. It was involved in a number of walkout protests. It too has faded away.

Of course the vast majority of protestors weren’t involved directly in any of these groups, but between them the organisations listed above were responsible for calling 90% plus of the actions, doing 90% plus of the fundraising, doing 90% plus of the leafletting, doing 90% plus of the postering etc. Sinn Fein was directly involved in only one of these groups, PANA, and it certainly didn’t dominate that group, which if anything has a Labour left tinge.

Under its own banner, Sinn Fein had speakers at the rallies (along with dozens of others). It also brought banners and organised contingents to the marches on a slightly bigger scale than the Labour Party and on perhaps a similar scale to the SWP, Socialist Party or the anarchist blocs. It is simply factually wrong to suggest that Sinn Fein led the anti-war movement, a movement which was much bigger than any of its component parts.


11. Eagle - January 26, 2007

The truth was that it was a broad-based movement which achieved something pretty spectacular that day, but which has fallen into some disarray and acrimony since then (as is inevitable with anything touched by the SWP).

Other than convincing a large number of people to walk with them on a pleasant afternoon, what did the anti-war people accomplish that day?


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