Nick Cohen What’s Left?:
How Liberals Lost Their Way
Fourth Estate, 400 pages, £12.99

The author of this book, a respected columnist on Britain’s venerable Sunday newspaper of liberal outlook, The Observer, was born into a family in which it was assumed, as a settled matter beyond reasonable doubt, that all intelligent, cultivated, and decent people were on, and of, the Left, and that there was no serious intellectual or moral case to be made for any type of conservatism. Conservatives were not merely wrong but bad, at best motivated by a fear of change and at worst by their own narrowly material interests (the Left at that time had no material interests, at least in its own estimation). Conservatives might sometimes win elections, of course, but that was no reason to take anything they said seriously.

There comes a time, however, in many a leftist’s life when he looks around him and realizes that, all his tireless support for reform notwithstanding, many aspects of the modern world, some of them brought about by the very reform that he has so assiduously supported, do not entirely please him—and what is more, that some of his erstwhile companions in the struggle now disgust him. The world then becomes for him more ambiguous in its meaning. Mr. Cohen is on the cusp of such a change of worldview.

Changes in outlook generally have provoking causes, though there may be an underlying quasi-biological tendency in the ageing process towards conservatism. In Mr. Cohen’s case, his change of outlook was provoked by Iraq and the response of the Left to Saddam Hussein. In its opposition to the war, the Left has contrived to minimize the horrors of Saddam in order to maximize the evils of Bush and Blair: if the war was bad, then it followed that Saddam was not as bad as all that. According to Mr. Cohen, the Left had fallen for the old illusion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, irrespective of what he is actually like. And this reasoning led Mr. Cohen to doubt whether the Left’s commitment to such desiderata as basic human rights was as strong or principled as he had hitherto supposed to it be. It was more like posturing than like real commitment.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to doubt the wisdom of the enterprise in Iraq without resort to the expedient of whitewashing Iraqi Baathism and its murderous leaders, or to the repulsively grovelling apologetics of George Galloway. One has only to read the words of Elie Kedourie, which are the fruit of deep knowledge, long and discouraging experience, and brilliant intelligence, to realize the difficulties in the way of reform in the Middle East:

It is enough for practical men to fend off present evils and secure existing interests. They must not cumber themselves with historical dogmas, or chase illusions in that maze of double talk which western political vocabulary has extended over the whole world. The very attempt to modernise middle eastern society, to make it western or “democratic” must bring about evils, which may be greater than the benefits.

Professor Kedourie, born an Iraqi Jew, knew whereof he spoke.

Mr. Cohen’s main complaint against his erstwhile companions on the Left is that they have failed to take seriously the universality of Enlightenment values such as freedom of expression and freedom from oppression by arbitrary power. Instead, whenever they saw a foreign enemy of their own country whom they could usefully co-opt as an ally in their disputes with their own domestic enemies, they resorted to nihilistic relativism and multiculturalism, thus explaining away the vileness of their new ally’s atrocities as being the expression of his sacrosanct cultural tradition.

However, it does not follow from a belief in the universality of Enlightenment values that they can, and therefore should, be imposed by force. No doubt it is desirable that people should be kind, but you cannot force or even cajole them into being kind. While philosophical enlightenment can no doubt be encouraged, it cannot be imposed: it is sought and achieved. And not everybody seeks it, let alone achieves it. There is no logical necessity for opponents of the Iraq war to be apologists for Saddam.

The question of Iraq looms so large in Mr. Cohen’s reflections because the Left, to which he once belonged and to which he retains a sentimental attachment, clearly feeling that there must be something worth saving from the ruins, has comprehensively lost the economic argument that was once its very raison d’être, and is now reduced to the work of cultural destruction and the balkanization of society into little communities of ideological monomaniacs—the feminists, homosexual and animal liberationists, and so forth. The Left lost its soul when it lost the economic argument.

As it happens, I write this in my study where I have before me books of erotica smuggled in the late 1950s to my late mother from Paris by her cousin who lived there, and which I have inherited. Published by the Olympia and Obelisk Presses, and an organization called Les Hautes Etudes, they include Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer, the Marquis de Sade’s Justine, and Count Palmiro Vicaron’s Book of Limericks, none of which was obtainable in the England of that time. Personally, I don’t think England was much the loser by that.

More interesting by far than the contents of these books are the newspapers in which my cousin covered them, a method of concealment so ludicrous that it surely would have alerted any customs officer who was not actually of subnormal intelligence to the nature of their contents. A page from the Guardian for 30 November 1959, covering a compendium of 1,700 salacious limericks (complete with scholarly apparatus), reports from the Labour Party Conference of that year. Mrs. Barbara Castle, later to be an important government minister, said, “We [the state as one day to be ruled by the Labour Party] don’t want to take over industries merely in order to make them more efficient, but to make them responsible to us all.” (“We” here having changed its meaning to the whole population of the country). And Aneurin Bevan said “I insist that we will never be able to get the economic resources of this nation fully expanded unless we have a planned economy, in which the nation itself can determine its own priorities.”

These were the core beliefs and commonplaces of the Left until the advent of Mrs. Thatcher and the dissolution of the Soviet empire. So complete has been the defeat of socialism, however, that anyone who now avowed a belief in the superior efficiency of state-run industry would be more a candidate for the lunatic asylum (supposing that any remained open) than for high political office. All that the Left can nowadays propose on the domestic front is social policy so destructive that it allegedly necessitates a vast state apparatus to repair the damage it does. For this reason, the accusation of promoting only its material interests can now be more properly leveled at the Left than at conservatives, or at least at those conservatives who believe that conservatism is more than a matter of the lowest possible taxes.

Hell hath no fury like the former colleagues of a journalist who has changed his mind, and Mr. Cohen has not been altogether praised by them for what seems to them not so much a volte face as outright treachery. His book is not particularly well-written, nor does he present a structured argument: if he had, it would have been quite a lot shorter and more incisive. But it shows real thought, that of a man grappling with doctrines and presuppositions that until recently he took for granted.

He has very little to say about the domestic policy prescriptions of the modern Left, of which multiculturalism is among the most destructive. It was once the honorable goal of the Left, at least in Britain, to spread higher culture to the working class, and also to immigrants, so that every person capable by inclination and natural endowment of enjoying, participating in, or contributing to that higher culture would do so. More recently, however, the Left has devoted its energies to denying that there is any higher or lower, better or worse in cultural matters. Not coincidentally, this betrayal allows leftist intellectuals to preen themselves on the broadness of their minds while they maintain their membership of a social elite. They rarely educate their own children as if their theoretical pronouncements were true. Clearly, there is an analogy here with their betrayal of Enlightenment values in foreign affairs.

This betrayal is not new, though Mr. Cohen appears to believe that it is. It was one thing to oppose the Vietnam War because you thought it was futile and ethically worse than not fighting it (not necessarily true, but at least an honest opinion); quite another because you thought that Uncle Ho was a good man who was leading his people to freedom and prosperity, something that you could believe only by employing all the human mind’s capacity for special pleading and self-deception.

I will be interested to follow Mr. Cohen’s subsequent career. Will he reject his childhood altogether and become truly conservative? He is still young enough to do so.