There was much I recognised in Cohen's account of growing up in a leftwing family. I can't say my own got quite so worked-up about citrus fruit but the the key elements of the traditional anti-fascism of this generation were well-described. Franco's regime, for example, was fascist - end of story. I mention this, not only because it is familiar but because the use of the term 'fascist' has been disputed when it has been applied to Baathist Iraq and Al-Qaeda by Nick Cohen and others. Take Peter Osborne, for example:
"Cohen grabs key Western concepts and applies them very loosely in a Middle-Eastern context, where they have a problematic application. For him Saddam Hussein's Baath Party is 'fascist' and so are the Islamic movements that it suppressed. There is no doubt that the word 'fascist' adds power and apparent clarity to Cohen's polemic, and it is of course the case that Saddam borrowed some of the most loathsome Nazi ideas. But the use of such a specific and emotive Western term to describe a variety of complex and distinct phenomena hinders rather than enables genuine understanding."Peter Osborne does not, of course, belong to the left that Cohen suggests has lost its moorings but I use this to illustrate the argument. One could make a case that neither Franco's regime nor Baathist Iraq were fully-fledged fascist regimes but the point is that by the very criterion they used to use, Baathist Iraq - with its secret police forces, the monopoly over the means of communication, its party elevated above the state, and the cult surrounding the personality of the leader - certainly was. Certainly it was a more clear-cut example than Franco, so why did we, and do we, hear these appeals for a nuanced understanding of a term that hitherto was used with a promiscuity that threatened to empty it of all meaning?
In this sense, Cohen is right on target when he describes the grotesque behaviour of the tyrant-appeasing sycophant George Galloway. The central thesis of the book though is more controversial because it is that the behaviour one finds on the fringes of the present totalitarian left 'magnify' more general trends. Few have the stomach to actually grovel before dictators, for example, but many more make excuses for them. Few are stupid or vicious enough to explicitly glorify Hezbollah and its leader but many more march in docile fashion apparently unconcerned, or maybe unaware, that when they walk under banners that declare "We are all Hezbollah", they are aligning themselves with terrorist murderers with an explicitly anti-semitic programme.
Cohen's thesis is that this reflects a new strain of an ignoble tradition amongst sections of the left that were always willing to sacrifice the principles of democracy and liberty should they collide with the need to keep one's anti-Western, anti-capitalist and specifically anti-American credentials in a pristine condition and further that it is this that has gone mainstream, albeit in diluted form, amongst the mainstream liberal-left.
The question is, how accurate is this? John Harris is one of many who accuses Nick Cohen of erecting straw-men, whereas Oliver Kamm, for example, is one amongst many who find in "What's Left?" a reasonable account of the state the liberal-left has got itself into.
Am I allowed to say I don't know? On one hand, Cohen is right, I think, to castigate those supposedly liberal-left journals like the Guardian, the Independent and the New Statesman for the often nauseating contortions they put themselves through with their invitations to understand the behaviour of homocidal dictators, nihilistic terrorists or more straightforward reactionary religious movements. On the other hand we just don't know the extent to which this sort of rubbish is taken seriously by the 'mainstream' left not least because - and perhaps it takes someone who isn't a journalist to point this out - not that many people actually read these publications.
On the mainstream liberal-left Jenny Tonge's explicit sympathy for suicide-murderers could be taken as evidence for the sort of phenomenon Nick Cohen is talking about - but then again, she was sacked for it. I could repeat the examples but wouldn't get any further than this: I think Nick Cohen is probably more right than wrong, which is the reason I thought it was worth signing the Euston Manifesto. On the other hand, I didn't think the book gave enough recognition to the other left that while opposing the invasion of Iraq nevertheless decline to make excuses either for fascism or ultra-reactionary religious movements. Where are the totalitarian left amongst the antiwar crowd? They are those who are presently supporting the 'resistance'. The bad faith of these can be demonstrated by the way they utilised essentially Hobbesian arguments to oppose the ouster of Saddam Hussein, then proceeded to negate this by supporting a 'resistance' that can be only subversive to any sort of order. Unless they won, in which case they would have a regime that would represent the antithesis of everything they profess to believe in. Everything, that is, except anti-Americanism.
How representative are these? One of the problems of Cohen's thesis is it is very difficult to quantify but I suspect that this group is not quite as large as he assumes. The Keep-the-War-Going objectively pro-resistance marches have, after all, been rather smaller than those held to oppose the war in the first instance. And the grouping on the left that opposed the war yet still remains resolute in its opposition to the Baathists, clerical fascists and ultra-nationalists presently tearing Iraq apart is probably larger than he allows for.
But what is prevalent, I think, is the mainstreaming of more straightforward conservative ideas amongst some on the left. Not objectively pro-fascism, rather a feeling that what goes on in far away places has nothing to do with us. Not pro-theocracy, rather the vague notion that cultures are different and perhaps not amenable to democracy. Not pro-dictatorship, merely the understanding that any order, regardless of how bad, is better than chaos. For example, for me one of the most shocking arguments against the overthrow of the Taliban is the idea that at least they kept Afghanistan's opium production in check. Never mind unveiled women having acid thrown in their faces; a price worth paying to avoid Western drug users being put in harm's way. What could be more insular than that? This too was a theme of Cohen's book which hasn't received the attention that other aspects of it have.
Critics will no doubt complain that this last point was the substantive one, that this is the one that has been vindicated by events and that this was what they were marching for all along. Perhaps this was true for many but I have reason to believe that this honest position was not held by, at the very least, a significant minority. I concede again it is practically impossible to quantify but there's been a couple of indicators. One is the indifference towards, if not a downright hostility to, the plight of those attempting to establish a democratic order in Iraq. The other is a question that formed in my mind as I witnessed the anti-war marchers, as I know it did with many others in much the same way. It goes something like this: if you really did, as you claim, only oppose the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, not because of anti-Americanism, or insularity, or indifference, but because you thought that as heinous as it was, any attempt to overthrow Baathism by military means would only make matters worse - why were your hearts not heavy with the knowledge of this hideous choice?
Update: Some fair criticism from Norm and Steven Poole makes a similar point in the