Britain: ‘What’s Left?’ – Not Nick Cohen!

Former ‘radical’ journalist’s diatribe against anti-war movement and Left

Nick Cohen initially established his left credentials in his baiting attacks on the Blairites in the columns of The Observer newspaper. Yet, even then, he was in the ‘populist’ tradition of many writing for capitalist journals, who while making occasional waspish swipes against the right – including New Labour – possess no political anchor. They can, therefore, swing over just as easily to an opposite political stance when the political winds begin to change.

Paul Johnson – unknown to many, particularly young people today – started off on the left (much more to the left than Nick Cohen) as editor of the then left-wing journal, New Statesman, in the 1960s but ended up as a Daily Telegraph writer and a fervent Thatcherite.

Nick Cohen describes himself as being "on the liberal left". The term ‘left’ has been used since the time of the French Revolution – when the extreme republicans, the Jacobins and the ‘Mountain’ sat on the left of the French revolutionary Convention – to describe broad oppositional movements to the right-wing capitalist establishment.

Class war

Today, however, it is the working class and its organisations – the trade unions and mass political parties – which symbolise the ‘left’. Every last drop of ‘progressiveness’ has been drained from the cup of capitalist ‘liberals’. The Liberal Democrats in Britain, and all their cousins internationally, now support the most brutal features of the ‘free market’ economy, particularly privatisation and the weakening of working class resistance which arises from this.

Cohen is no different; he supports privatisation and proclaims on practically every page of his book the ‘death of socialism’, which, incredibly, he dates as evident even before the collapse of the Berlin Wall – that is during the 1980s. Yet, this was a decade of savage class war; shown in the heroic battle of Liverpool City Council against Thatcher between 1983 and 1987, the ‘civil war without guns’ of the miners’ strike of 1984-85, and the momentous anti-poll tax struggle – led by Militant, predecessor of the Socialist Party – that shattered the Thatcher government and led to the resignation of the Iron Lady herself.

Driven "half mad" (the term he uses to describe the left) by the opposition to the Iraq war, Nick Cohen strikes out against not just the ‘left’ but the ‘right’. He attacks Douglas Hurd, former Tory minister under Thatcher and Major, and even the ‘centre’ – ‘liberals’ who refused to follow him into support for Bush and Blair’s war in Iraq and uncritical support of the Israeli ruling class and its actions.

Twisted logic

Operating on the crude ancient proverb, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, Cohen denounces all those who refused to go along with support for Clinton and Blair’s war in the Balkans, Bush and Blair’s war in Afghanistan and, of course, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was for "liberty and democracy". Anyone who opposed these wars, according to the twisted political logic of Nick Cohen, was in bed with the dictator Milosevic, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein.

The truth is that the Socialist Party, and most of the left who opposed these wars, were savagely critical of these regimes. We are implacably opposed to all dictatorships and support the working class and the poor in their opposition to them. But, min any action, particularly one as serious as a war, it is always necessary to ask ‘who is doing it, why are they doing it and in whose interests are they acting?’ The purpose of these wars was to enhance the strategic and military imposition of the propertied classes of America, Britain, etc.

In the case of Iraq, Cohen disputes that it was a ‘war for oil’. Tell that to the Iraqi people who are witnessing the selling, at knockdown prices and long-term contracts, of their oil to multinational companies. He draws a parallel between Saddam Hussein and the fascist dictators in Europe in the 1930s. The motives of the US and British over Iraq are, according to Cohen, similar to those in the Spanish Civil War, who fought against Franco.

He forgets one small detail; in Spain in 1936-7, the Spanish masses independently mobilised against Franco’s fascist coup and initially took four-fifths of Spain. Any ‘intervention’ then from the US, Britain and other capitalist powers was to prevent this revolution from being completed. Stalin, also afraid of the success of the Spanish revolution, used the authority of Russia and the 1917 revolution to decapitate and murder the flower of the working class, including those who either had been or were ‘Trotskyists’.

Crude methods

Despite his denunciation of Stalin and "socialist totalitarians", Nick Cohen, in effect, uses crude Stalinist methods of amalgam to equate all of those who would not go along with imperialist interventions as dupes of Milosevic, the Taliban, al-Qa’ida and Saddam Hussein.

Genuine socialists and Marxists wanted the removal of these dictators but not through the guns and bayonets of Bush, Clinton and Blair, because this, as we predicted, would produce a catastrophe in Iraq, without bringing the ‘democracy’ proclaimed as a fact by Cohen in Iraq today. A popular mass movement to overthrow Saddam’s regime could have resulted in real peace and plenty for the peoples of Iraq.

The Iraq war was not for ‘democracy’, as is shown by the propping up of every reactionary dictatorial regime in the Middle East by the US. On a recent trip to Egypt, not a mention was made of ‘democracy’ in Egypt or in the wider Middle East by Bush’s Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, which was allegedly the purpose of the war in Iraq.

Socialists and Marxists stand for an independent class position on all occasions. We are in opposition to right-wing political Islam, to Saddam Hussein and every regime, whether proclaiming to be ‘democratic’ or not, which attacks the rights and conditions of the working class.


Nick Cohen uses pages to discredit Marxism, dubbed ‘the far left’, by quoting the misdemeanours of the tiny Workers’ Revolutionary Party, led by Gerry Healy. He also uses the mistakes of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the anti-war movement, the appearance of George Galloway on Big Brother and his well-known statement in Baghdad of ‘support’ for Saddam Hussein. Of course, no mention is made of the criticisms made by the Socialist Party and others of the opportunism of the SWP and the actions of George Galloway.

The Socialist Party consistently fought, both within the Stop the War Coalition (STWC), and outside, against the SWP’s uncritical support of the Iraqi ‘resistance’. An internal circular of the STWC which stated that Iraqis had the right to resist "by whatever means they find necessary" is quoted by Nick Cohen in his book. The Socialist Party representative on the STWC committee objected at the time to this formula and it was agreed it would be withdrawn and the circular redrafted. Cohen confirms this but, dishonestly, merely adding: "They withdrew it [the circular] after protests."

The refusal, in particular, of the left to go along with uncritical support of Israel, is a major irritant for Nick Cohen. It is true that some on the left have taken a one-sided position, including a refusal to recognise the national rights of the Israeli people for their own state. Some have also gone along uncritically with every action of the Palestinian organisations, even though this is sometimes counter-productive in cementing unity between the Israeli and Palestinian masses that is the key to solving the problems of the region.


Such an approach is a million miles removed from that of Cohen, whose book is laced with the grossest distortions of the real political position of the serious socialist left. For instance, he quite falsely states: "The far left refers to the few remaining Leninists who still believe, or pretend to believe, that they can seize power and introduce a totalitarian state."

Also, "Trotskyists" resort to a "transparent manoeuvre to keep communism alive by pretending that the one-party state would have been fine if only Lenin and Trotsky had stayed in charge of the secret police."

Trotsky defended the planned economy created by the 1917 revolution but opposed the Stalinist totalitarian bureaucracy and advocated workers’ democracy.

This book is not about the ‘left’ but is a diatribe worthy of what used to be called the ‘yellow’ journalists, rabid right-wing pro-capitalists. It resorts to insults rather than arguments against socialism and Marxism. It will fail in its task of seeking to alienate the new generation of workers and youth from socialism and Marxism. They will be forced into action under the blows of neo-liberal capitalism and will seek out genuine socialist and Marxist ideas as a solution to their problems.

What’s Left? by Nick Cohen, Fourth Estate, London, £12.99

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March 2007