h dear, where do I begin? I knew from the previews printed in The Observer that Nick Cohen had written a very bad book, but even I was taken aback at just how bad it turned out to be - and how bad a book could be if written with the worst of motives. This propaganda piece is a farrago of irrelevancies, inaccuracies, evasions, distortions and outright falsehoods. The errata slips could be longer than the book. I won't go into much detail as most of the analytical work has already been done and published on the Internet. I would instead point you in the direction of two bloggers, StuartA (of Indecent Left) at http://tinyurl.com/2zchap and http://tinyurl.com/ytt4ab and Tim Holmes (of The Memory Hole) at http://tinyurl.com /yve6bl.
Stuart and Tim do such an effective hatchet job that it falls to me only to pick a way through the splinters. Can I add just one to the list? Sinn Fein were not 'in charge of the protests' in Ireland against the war (p281), this comes as news to the Irish. Where did he get that one from?
In case you think that the above bloggers have been unfair, Cohen has left the defence to his friend, our own Paul Anderson, who feebly excuses the book's many inexactitudes on the basis that it doesn't 'pretend to be a piece of cutting-edge original research or scholarship', but rather, 'It's a polemic'. This is a bit rich coming from someone who teaches journalism at a university and disapproves of his students using Wikipedia (http://libsoc.blogspot.com/). And it is no excuse for inaccuracies in a book written by a leading journalist - one who takes up the opinion pages of several national newspapers and magazines. A clue to Anderson's indulgence is given in the acknowledgements, where he is thanked by Cohen for providing the dirt on the Workers Revolutionary Party.
At least Anderson is a reliable source on the bizarre and cultish WRP, but what relevance their history has on the left of today is never addressed by Cohen. Indeed those of use who were around at the time will recall how extremely hostile the 'Actors Revolutionary Party' was to everyone else on the left - often violently. This makes Cohen's choice of Bosnia guru, Marko Attila Hoare, all the more curious. Hoare claims not to have been a member of the WRP, but says he is proud of his association with the WRP's Cliff Slaughter for whom he wrote pamphlets on the Balkans. Slaughter served for years as Gerry 'The Mekon' Healy's theoretician. Hoare is now a leading light of the Neo-Conservative Henry Jackson Society (named after the Democratic Party's biggest supporter of the Vietnam War) along with Cohen's favourite MP, the egregious Denis MacShane.
Another neo-con Cohen informant is the ludicrous figure of Oliver Kamm, a Tory-voting investment banker who somehow claims to be 'on the left'. Kamm is a figure of fun on the Internet for having the most pompous and verbose blog and for spending years cyber-stalking Noam Chomsky. This culminated in Kamm joining forces with Francis Wheen and David Aaronovitch in an attempt to get The Guardian to withdraw an apology to Chomsky for an article which attributed quotes to him he never said or wrote. Cohen tries to excuse this by claiming the article was 'poorly subbed' - like this book Nick? A quotation from Chris Harman has the word "secretly" inserted, which wasn't in the original.
As for the purpose of the book Cohen and Anderson claim that it 'is not about Iraq'. Well blow me down, why not? You would have thought that someone who had supported an illegal invasion which had resulted in the deaths and injuries of hundreds of thousand of innocent civilians would have had something to say in his defence or at least say a few words of regret. Nothing doing. Cohen's view is that if he was wrong about the war, then it was for all the right reasons and the left was right for all the wrong reasons. In fact, the left seems to have a history of doing little else than supporting fascism, being anti-Semitic, ignoring genocide and having contempt for the working class. Cohen decides the best form of defence is attack and thus embarks on a massive smear job. Cohen is prepared to use any stick with which to attack the left, but waving around the Major government policy on Bosnia and John Betjeman's poem calling for the bombing of Slough is just bizarre. Perhaps I missed Comrade Betjeman's presence on the barricades in 1968.
Cohen makes some unlikely allies on his journey rightwards. His first hero is Kanan Makiya, another Trotskyist turned Neo-Conservative, whom Cohen dubs the 'Iraqi' Solzhenitsyn. Well I suppose they are both very right-wing but Makiya's visits to Israel and friendship with Paul Wolfowitz indicate a very different attitude to Jews from Solzhenitsyn. Cohen repeats Makiya's slurs on brave Arab intellectuals such as Edward Said who had publicly attacked Arab despots and suffered the consequences, but glosses over the fact that Makiya had benefited from lucrative contracts with Saddam Hussein while working for his father's architecture company in London until 1983. Makiya had published his works critical of the Ba'ath regime under a pseudonym which saved Makiya Associates from any harm. Not very heroic you might say. Makiya persuaded many waverers before the war that the invaders of Iraq would be met with 'sweets and flowers' and once it began said that the bombing of Baghdad 'was music to my ears'. Makiya now believes that the whole thing is a disaster, but refuses to apologise as that would be 'Maoist'.
Cohen has claimed that the main thrust of his book is the lack of solidarity shown by the left with the women and trade unionists of Iraq. Short of real examples, Cohen announces a 'thought experiment' (this is usually a sign of someone entering the realms of fantasy) and conjures up a scenario where Indian women ask their Western sisters for help in fighting dowry murders. Then, their minds poisoned by cultural relativism and post-modernist theories, western liberals would refuse to help. Cohen's view of the third world as helpless, unable to help itself is just an update of the 'White Man's Burden'. This also ignores the fact that there are many such groups, for example Mardre (www.mardre.org), who are joining in solidarity with women fighting for their rights in countries like Iraq. Perhaps they are ignored because they opposed the invasion and occupation which Cohen foolishly imagined would liberate them.
As for Iraqi Trade Unions, the left supported them when they opposed the war - Cohen didn't. We support the General Union of Oil Employees who are trying to prevent the theft of Iraqi oil by American and British multinationals - Cohen doesn't. Indeed it is hard to find any evidence of Nick Cohen doing anything to help Iraqi Trade Unionists except an occasion reported on 14 April 2005 in the Observer where he went drinking at lunchtime with some, and ended up too drunk to remember what went on other than they hated George Galloway. So I decided to carry out my own experiment. Cohen praises the Labour Friends of Iraq (who are even more friendly to Israel) so he must have read on their website about the attack on the central office of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers on 23 February (and as a NUJ member about a similar raid on 19 February on the Baghdad offices of the Iraqi Journalists' Syndicate). One worker was abducted and computers and fax machines taken. I've been waiting in vain ever since for Nick Cohen to use his position as a columnist in several publications to publicise this issue - but then the raids were carried out by the US Army.
In short, Cohen's interest in Iraqi trade unionists and feminists seems limited to their usefulness as props in his caricatures of the Left. Perhaps the strangest thing about the book is the lack of evidence that Cohen was ever 'on the left'. The best he can come up with is a story about his mother boycotting South African oranges (a cue for feeble jokes about risking scurvy). This has all the marks of someone writing about a subject without any first-hand knowledge, owing everything to hearsay, sloppy research and unreliable informants.
This is a book which will appeal to the right-wing, the stupid and the ignorant, confirming all their prejudices about socialists. Rambling, indiscriminate and incoherent, it is almost as hard to read as to review. Indeed it is the worst book on the left I have read since Richard 'Skinhead' Allen's Demo (subtitled 'With a little help from their Moscow friends the Love Generation learns to hate'). Although I said it was worse than I thought, believe me when I say that it is worse than you can possibly imagine. Do not buy this book. Nor is it worth stealing. Get a copy of Demo instead - at least it's funny.
What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way by Nick Cohen (Fourth Estate £12.99)