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Nick Cohen’s musings on the McGuinness Presidential campaign. September 28, 2011

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, The Left.

We already discussed this tangentially at the weekend and many thanks to neilcalf for pointing the way, but even amongst the truly bizarre arguments Cohen propounds in the Observer, most notably a comparison between the IRA and continental Falangism, this paragraph following perhaps best demonstrates how partial, and arguably partisan, his reading of Irish history is:

Their war [the IRA] was futile because the power sharing and cross-border institutions the IRA settled for in 1998 had been on offer since 1974. All the people the IRA, Protestant paramilitaries and the British army killed in the intervening decades died for nothing. Sometimes, it seems as if the only person stating the obvious is the Guardian and Observer’s Ireland correspondent Henry McDonald, but his point needs repeating: the ranks of the IRA were filled with the world’s slowest-learning murderers. It took them a generation to realise their dream of uniting Ireland by violence was a malign fantasy.

This is ahistorical. Firstly both wings of Republicanism, Provisional and Official, were vehemently opposed to Sunningdale. Henry McDonald of all people one would imagine would be well able to tell Cohen this.

But that’s to reify but one element in the equation because Cohen ignores the unwillingness of vast bulk of political Unionism to share power with nationalism – not Sinn Féin but the SDLP, an unwillingness that was reiterated time and again through the 1970s and on into the 1980s. And this unwillingness wasn’t predicated by the activities of the IRA – though it didn’t help, but rather was an intrinsic belief on the part of unionism that power-sharing in and of itself, even with the mildest of nationalist formations was simply wrong. This issue was engaged to some degree here.

We’re hearing a lot about how Sinn Féin seeks to rewrite history, and there’s some truth in that. How could it be otherwise with an history that was at many points appalling. But it wasn’t an history that depended solely on the agency of the IRA and Sinn Féin. There were many players in this, and that is not simple ‘whataboutery’ but instead a recognition of the deep rooted dynamics that long predated the arrival of the IRA in its most recent incarnation.

One might say that it’s unsurprising that Cohen in a newspaper article would be unconcerned with such nuances, as well as clearly unacquainted with the facts, but to be honest I think it should be precisely the opposite way around when he considers it appropriate to make such stark and startling statements as he does.


1. Ramzi Nohra - September 28, 2011

Yes it was very disappointing. The Sunningdale comment in particular smacked of someone who has read a rhetorical point and picked it up without understanding it’s context.

The comparison to European fascists wasn’t helpful or illuminating given sf’s relatively pro-immigrant stance.

Quoting Cusack is also never a good move – and the point about foreshadowing Islamist suicide bombings would have been dispelled with a moments googling.


WorldbyStorm - September 28, 2011

It’s a perfect storm of his prejudices. I say this every time, but once Cohen was a brilliantly sceptical deconstructor of the enemies of the welfare state whether Tory or Conservative. But… now what is he?


Budapestkick - September 28, 2011

Yesterday’s man. Like most of the Euston manifesto tits he alienated himself from the most progressive forces in English society (especially the young), now he clings to life, spouting this type of dribble to anyone who will listen.


Budapestkick - September 28, 2011

*alienated himself by supporting the war in Iraq.


WorldbyStorm - September 28, 2011

That’s it isn’t it? But was it his age and theirs – in general, some sort of generational thing or something more?


Budapestkick - September 28, 2011

I don’t think the generational thing really explains it. Tony Benn was a key figure in the anti-war movement and that’s part of the reason why he’s still so beloved, even by people too young to remember his formal political career. He has a genuine ability to connect with the concerns of a broad audience of various generations. The arrogant stupidity of the cruise-missile left was in part a reflection of an already existing rift between them and progressive and radical opinion outside their own little circle. Thus, they have become the sad, irrelevant, isolated curmudgeons of today.


WorldbyStorm - September 28, 2011

That makes sense, that there was a structure rift already opening up.


Phil - September 29, 2011

I’ve got a certain amount of sympathy for Nick; I know where he’s coming from, because I’m from somewhere similar. There’s a process of deradicalisation that you see again and again on the Left. You start by denouncing the abuses and errors of some group you see as dominant on the Left, quite often *from* the Left; you then, reluctantly, make common cause with the more enlightened parts of the mainstream against the Wrong Left, often announcing in the process that you and a few people who agree with you are the *real* Left. Eventually, the gentle day-to-day pressure of who you talk to and who you talk about wears away your radical edges, and you end up not only denouncing the same people the Right denounce, but denouncing them on the same grounds.

This happens over and over again: Schachtman, Koestler, Orwell… A guy I know moved in the space of a year or two from denouncing Leninists on council-communist grounds to denouncing them as infiltrators in the Labour Party. I’m not sure he realised how far he’d travelled – after all, he was the same guy with the same hatred of Trots… Where you are, quite a few ex-Officials give the impression that hating the Provos is their only consistent political principle – and whether you hate them from the Left or from the Right is down to personal taste.

And this (to get to the point, finally) is what the ‘cruise missile Left’ is all about, and how I very nearly joined it. It goes back to Bosnia. This is still a contentious subject, but it seemed to me at the time that the dominant Left positions in Britain on the wars in the former Yugoslavia were utterly wrong, based on misconceptions of the situation and sustained by misreadings of what was happening. Quite a substantial minority of us thought this way; at the time of the Kosova crisis, when the same division played out again, I remember a friend saying that we might be looking at the founding of a new New Left. This seemed pretty cool to me at the time, but now I thank God it never happened. Being on board with Hitchens and Marko and Nick, and denouncing the errors of Chomsky & Pilger & Benn, was fun at the time – I’d even say it was correct at the time. But dear Lord, you wouldn’t want to get stuck like that.

Incidentally, Marko has his own repentant-sinner story with regard to Kosova – he’s said that he opposed the NATO intervention on anti-imperialist arm-the-workers grounds, but decided afterwards that he should have supported it. Whereas I supported it (with multiple reservations), on general at-last-someone’s-doing-something grounds, and decided afterwards I should have opposed it.


make do and mend - September 29, 2011

Phil, thanks for the insights. Very interesting.

Does your story not say something fundamental about how the left (in the generalist of general terms) tend to view the world?

There seems to be an assumption that there is a perfect answer to every problem, crisis or conundrum. It also assumes that some one or people will Always have perfect clarity about a situation and hence are correct in their analysis. We can then ignore those who hold different views. (Forget about the fact that we often heap scorn on their heads.)

Yet life often presents us with problems where we don’t have complete information; the situation changes in mid crisis and thereby changes the dynamics; and some problems are predicaments that don’t have nice easy solutions. These predicaments only offer a range of options (often with outcomes we won’t know for years into the future) that present nothing more than an array of suboptimal responses – none perfect and none offering solace in predefined ideology.

I often blame those who adhere rigidly to a doctrinal reading of any given Marxist text, but I don’t think that offers enough insight and is actually a pretty arrogant stance in itself.

I suppose praxis (a term I don’t understand terribly well) would be a more moderate analytical tool to use in these situations. The area where theory meets the messy, practical world should just be recognised for what it is – a messy area. There may be a minimum line whereby a majority can agree a less than optimal response.

Maybe we should take a page out of the capitalist playbook. These people often operate in environments where they can’t obtain optimal solutions, due to internal divisions, so they choose or create options that can generate more options. They not only do not need some perfect solution, they thrive by creating less than optimal situations so long as they know they have options and can change direction on a moments notice when its in their advantage to do so.

Just observations from someone whose life is an ongoing predicament.



LeftAtTheCross - September 29, 2011

MDAM, are you not simply describing the difference between strategy and tactics? The former dictates the long-term approach, the latter allows weaving and ducking to confront the wobbles that upset the best laid plans. It’s clear that Capitalism is intent on preserving or expanding its share of deflating wealth. Austerity is one tactic, implemented with regional and temporal variations perhaps. Old fashioned imperialist interventions and part of the strategy for undermining opposition to its hegemony, whether in ex-Jugoslavia or Iraq or Libya, where different tactics are employed in terms of all-out aggression, so-called humanitarian intervention, or use of proxy forces.

On your point of adopting the capitalist modus operandi of muddling through, of opportunism, I’d argue that the Left shouldn’t resort to that because our goal is not preservation of an imperfect status quo, rather the winning of hearts and minds to the vision of a better future alternative. Certainly muddling will be required at a more advanced stage along that path, when the responsibilty of managing daily reality is placed on the shoulders of the Left and of a broader democracy, but for the sake of medium-term clarity of vision I don’t think opportunism is a suitable approach.


make do and mend - September 29, 2011

LATC, I understand fully what you’re saying and I agree. Recoginising or creating optionality as a modus operandi is opportunistic. Why opportunism, based on a set of principles that are themselves flexible in the face of actual circumstances, is bad is something I can’t fathom. Yeah, sometimes one makes mistakes (in my case often) but does one learn anything from them.

I’d like to say that one of us could say checkmate. But stalemate seems more like an appopriate response, as I don’t see how these lines of reasoning could synthesize.

We’re probably following parallel paths, but seperate nonetheless.



LeftAtTheCross - September 29, 2011

MDAM, I don’t think I’m disagreeing with you. Say 20+ years ago, in the actually existing Socialist states, there was clearly a requirement for muddling through on behalf of the socialist apparatus which was in control of the levers of power and which dictated the daily reality of the prevailing economic and social processes. “Opportunism” was a requirement, adaptation was necessary. I don’t see predetermined doctrine-based rigidity in those circumstances as something which is beyond criticism, evolution is part of life, adaptation to circumstances determines survival. As you say, as long as there is a set of principles dictating the choices to be made between different adaptation options. So no need for checkmate, or stalemate.


ejh - September 29, 2011

Re: what Phil says above, one thing that puzzles me (not about what he said or did, but about the process he describes) is why, when people decide that on a given issue the anti-interventionalist Left are wrong, it nearly always involves simultaneously denouncing them for all sorts of horrific and ineradicable sins. It rarely seems possible just to say “look comrades, you’re wrong on this one”.

I know this happens, and I can speculate on why it happens, but I can’t really get my head round it.


make do and mend - September 29, 2011

Hi, LATC, I see where you’re coming from and maybe framing the conversation as a checkmate situation was falling into the quagmire which I was arguing against. Yet another Doh! moment for me.

I suppose the core of my viewpoint is that many problematical situations don’t have neat and precise solutions. A predicament indicates that a neat solution simply isn’t available, for whatever reasons. In these situations one can only weigh the options, hope one has some insights or tangental experience, and act accordingly. One then argues one case accordingly and puts the option up for a vote. One then has to go with flow, even if one feels that the wrong option is taken. I suppose in extreme cases, especially if the foundational basis of one’s viewpoints are altered beyond recognition, one quietly leaves.

I think the soviet example is quite pertinent. For whatever reasons, the leaders actually backed themselves into a narrow range of options. They couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt. Their solution was hardly nirvana. They just seemed to quit and let a neo-liberal hoard of capitalists set the agenda, and since then many metrics, like life expectancy, have fallen while oligarchs have risen. Maybe if they hadn’t seen the situation as an either or (the status quo or capitalism) dilemma they could have actually began the project anew, which imo was flawed from the beginning, and adapt it to be meaningful for a majority of the worker’s lives.

Who knows, maybe we’ll discuss this into a dialectical solution, lol.

To ejh, yeah, I always find the vehemence leftists reserve for each other to be a real head wrecker.


LeftAtTheCross - September 29, 2011

“I think the soviet example is quite pertinent. For whatever reasons, the leaders actually backed themselves into a narrow range of options. They couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt. Their solution was hardly nirvana. They just seemed to quit and let a neo-liberal hoard of capitalists set the agenda, and since then many metrics, like life expectancy, have fallen while oligarchs have risen. Maybe if they hadn’t seen the situation as an either or (the status quo or capitalism) dilemma they could have actually began the project anew, which imo was flawed from the beginning, and adapt it to be meaningful for a majority of the worker’s lives.”

MDAM, reading Gorbachev’s memoirs a few years ago it seemed clear that he believed he was attempting to evolve the system while at the same time remaining true to socialist principles. However, that evolution became a (counter-)revolution, which illustrates the difficulties of the real world and the unintended or unconsidered consequences of tinkering with a relatively stable system, regardless of the perceived problems of the particular status quo and its relationship and dependencies on other systems, in this case the system at the opposite ideological pole of western/global capitalism. So I wouldn’t be too hard on the soviet leadership myself. As for the soviet project being flawed from the beginning, well we’ll just have to park that argument, in a fraternal kind of way.


Phil - October 3, 2011

ejh – I think an awful lot of the way people’s politics changes is down to the normative pressure of conversation, who you’re talking to about what. A Marxist who hates Trots for what purport to be good radical reasons is going to be short of people to talk to, & they’re quite likely to end up talking to people who hate Trots for other reasons. But the topics of “suppression of Kronstadt” and “redundancy notices in taxis” don’t have a lot in common, so conversation will tend to veer away from the politics that led them to start hating Trots and focus on the shared fact that they *do* hate Trots. Only then you’re left with a hatred that’s empty, which is uncomfortable – and it can only be filled with reasons to hate Trots *personally*, reasons why any reasonable person would hate Trots. So the image of the Trot gets loaded with all kinds of grotesquerie, hearsay taken as fact and (if all else fails) pre-emptive dismissal – we know about Trots, there’s no point even listening to arguments in their favour.

It’s an odd sort of mental shutdown, often carried out by people who consider themselves tremendously open-minded – try mentioning George Galloway on Lib Con.


2. Michael Carley - September 28, 2011

[Looks down thread and checks first …]

For ahistorical meandering, it’s hard to beat this from Geoffrey Wheatcroft:



WorldbyStorm - September 28, 2011

Wow. That’s some piece…

I like this in particular…

“a free state was created in 1922 and it soon became what one Tory politician predicted at the time, the most reactionary corner of Europe.”

‘…predicted [approvingly]…’ 😉


JP - September 28, 2011

Does Wheatcroft fancy himself as some sort of Ireland expert?

From what I’ve read he keeps recycling the sentiment of that piece over and over – ie. Irish independence struggle was basically fascist and anti-democratic and those characteristics live on through Sinn Fein.

This ahistorical horseshit is written in a style which suggests ‘Punch circa-late 19th century’ sentiments are lurking not far below the surface.

I assume the Sindo, maybe even the IT, will take a piece from him in the next month?


Starkadder - September 30, 2011

Interesting piece from the “New Statesman”, where Wheatcroft
not only argues that imperialism has beneficial aspects but
quotes someone CDL readers have heard of (but misidentifies
the Scottish Marxist) :

The illogic of the left’s change of tune on imperialism was examined in Imperialism: pioneer of capitalism, a brilliant book by an English Marxist, Bill Warren, published posthumously in 1980.



CL - September 30, 2011

“The Guardian’s discrediting of the “left” – the left being a concept never defined by the paper’s writers – is far from taking place in a fair battle of ideas. Not least the Guardian is backed by the huge resources of its corporate owners. When it attacks dissident writers, they can rarely, if ever, find a platform of equal prominence to defend themselves. And the Guardian has proved itself more than reluctant to allow a proper right of reply in its pages to those it maligns.”

Bill Warren was a member of BICO. His anti-Leninist views on imperialism find a distinct echo in Harris/Smullen’s ‘Irish Industrial Revolution.”


3. Shay Brennan - September 28, 2011


4. CL - September 29, 2011

Noam Chomsky’s statement on Occupy Wall St. protest:

“”Anyone with eyes open knows that the gangsterism of Wall Street — financial institutions generally — has caused severe damage to the people of the United States (and the world). And should also know that it has been doing so increasingly for over 30 years, as their power in the economy has radically increased, and with it their political power. That has set in motion a vicious cycle that has concentrated immense wealth, and with it political power, in a tiny sector of the population, a fraction of 1%, while the rest increasingly become what is sometimes called “a precariat” — seeking to survive in a precarious existence. They also carry out these ugly activities with almost complete impunity — not only too big to fail, but also “too big to jail.’


5. CL - September 29, 2011

oops! wrong thread. Should be on the open thread. Sorry


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