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March 12, 2008

Warwick's heart beats on the left

‘Red Warwick’ is increasingly spoken of in the hallowed tones usually reserved for the theological. Well, after all it did have its own Bible (Warwick University Ltd.), it had its prophets (E.P.Thompson, Germaine Greer), it certainly had its devil (the Vice-Chancellor). And there doesn’t seem much chance of a second coming either. But the recent success of the Go Green and Palestine Solidarity weeks suggests that Warwick’s political heart still beats on the left. As does the emergence of the admirably plural Dissident Warwick, a journal mercifully free from the apologetics for Islamist terror offered by some quarters of the left. In this regard, the decline of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Respect has been just as gratifying.

One hopes that it marks an end to the most shameful period in the history of Warwick’s left, a period which saw George Galloway held up as a figure of socialist principle. Admittedly, taking Galloway apart is like harpooning a very large whale in a very small barrel, but since there remain those on campus that honour this man, it becomes not just a necessary duty, but a pleasurable one. I take no issue with the 2006 appearance of Galloway at a Stop the War event, a group dominated by the SWP and Respect, but rather with the fact that this invitation was designed to place him in a favourable light. A permatanned, creationist, carpetbagger, Galloway has many faults, but he will never better telling Saddam Hussein in 1994, ‘I thought the President would appreciate to know that even today, three years after the year, I still meet families who are calling their newborn sons Saddam’. He should have been greeted with, to annex Martin Amis’s description of the appropriate response to jihadist attacks, ‘an unvarying factory siren of unanimous disgust.’

It also remains more than perplexing that some of the most hysterical defenders of the No Platform policy lionise a man notorious for his ‘solidarity’ with the misogynistic and homophobic Hizbullah, currently listed as a banned racist and fascist group. But the most shaming moment for this pseudo-leftist nexus came when they handed out protest posters in advance of the death of the 100th British soldier in Iraq. What they didn’t tell students is that the SWP and Respect support the use of ‘all means necessary’ to attack British soldiers. The argument that all forms of ‘resistance’ are justified against the occupation has led these parties to fail to condemn, and by implication support, the use of children as decoys for chlorine bombs and most recently the strapping of explosives to Down’s syndrome sufferers unable to resist.

One can of course draw distinctions between student societies and national parties. But as one Respect member once put it in the Boar, ‘Don’t join a party unless you’re aware of all their ideologies, policies, and beliefs. You have to know that you will defend those ideas’. Well, quite.

If the Warwick left is to continue its recent progress it will need a greater reckoning with these past disgraces. Those who continue to apologise for them should be declared persona non grata in all progressive circles.

Published in the Warwick Boar, 04/03/08

July 25, 2007

Johann Hari takes on Nick Cohen

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Johann Hari turns out out a stinging review of Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? here for Dissent magazine and settles some scores with the wider pro-war left. (Hari recanted on his own support for the Iraq war last year)

Hari usefully breaks Cohen’s analysis down into four components: Islamism, Ba’athism, the left and neoconservatism. It is the last of these that comprises the core of the review and finds Hari at his most polemical. He makes an argument similar to that i put forward in my Boar article on Paul Wolfowitz; the logic of those on the left who supported the Iraq war such as Cohen and Christopher Hitchens leads to the old rationale that the end justifies the means.

The Bush administration, they argued, was far from the ideal force with which to remove the Saddam regime but there was no viable alternative. As David Aaronovitch wrote one month before the war began, “it would be preferable if an invasion could be undertaken, not by the Americans, but by, say, the Nelson Mandela International Peace Force, spearheaded by the Rowan Williams British Brigade. That’s not on offer. It has to be the Yanks.” Such analyses, i have argued, fail to recognise that the means also change the end. It was entirely forseeable that an administration dominated by figures who support the barbaric death penalty would not take due care to minimise civilian losses, as the experience of Fallujah bore out. It was equally forseeable that a neoliberal administration for whom patient, egalitarian and well-regulated state building is anathema, would not be able to successfully usher in a new stable and democratic Iraqi republic. As one of anti-war playwright David Hare’s characters acidly remarks “When you knew what sort of butcher was the surgeon then there was no doubt about the outcome of the operation.”

Yet one most always twin such a critique with Cohen’s most significant insight. The imperishable point which he returns to more than any other, is that once the war had began the onus was on those leftists who had opposed it (often with good reason as he curiously notes) to at least offer their solidarity to those Iraqis (including many opposed to the war) struggling for liberal democracy in the most difficult conditions. The circumstances were appalling but who could deny Iraqi men and women their shot at the freedoms we enjoy? Cohen rightly castigates those on the left who instead backed the murderous Iraqi ‘resistance’ but also attacks those who while not supporting ‘the resistance’ didn’t exactly oppose it either and continued to source all problems back to the coalition. It was the conspicuous failure of the left to rally around the cause of a democratic Iraq, in spite of the failures of the coalition, that inspired What’s Left?

Hari quite rightly continues to support Cohen on these key points as well as thankfully on the bulk of his analysis of Islamism. Yet he is also right to home in on Cohen’s central weakness, which is not so much what he does write but what he doesn’t. Unlike Christopher Hitchens who happily continues to reaffirm his unconditional support for the war, Cohen remains at best cagey and at worst silent regarding his precise position on the war. Beyond fleshing out his argument on the left’s betrayal of solidarity he has written astonishingly little on Iraq itself. And a man who uses the case of Iraq as the departure point for his entire thesis cannot afford to be coy on this point.

In What’s Left? Cohen notes that “You have to judge people by the bulk of the evidence they present: the burden of proof they offer by way of explanation. If they say, ‘Of course I oppose burning women/the “enormities” of communism/Saddam Hussein/ Guantanamo Bay’, and then spend the rest of their time in passionate polemics against feminists, democracy, the American invasion of Iraq or the gullibility of critics of the US administration, you can reasonably doubt the strength of their opposition and convinct them of rhetorical throat clearing.” Yet it is precisely this ‘rhetorical throat clearing’ that Cohen lapses into when he offers token opposition to the coalition who ‘sold the invasion to their publics with a false bill of goods…its aftermath was a bloody catastrophe’, without bothering to examine the implications of these failings for his own support for the war. Moreover, he neglects to reflect on the consequences for his broad analysis which as Hari argues, mostly implicitly, and only rarely explicitly, posits a mutuality of interest between Iraqi democrats, as well as the ideals of the left, and US neoconservatives.

In the most damning passage of the review Hari brandishes the blood-stained sheets of the war, “A policy of systematic torture? The immediate imposition of mass privatisations, causing mass unemployment and sectarian unrest? The barricading of civilian men aged between 18 and 60 in Fallujah, a city the size of Baltimore, before attacking it with chemical weapons? Cohen does not say how these neoconservative tactics have been “fighting the Left’s battles for them”.”

Cohen recently debated his book with The Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and it should be said came off much the better, Alibhai-Brown admitting she had neglected to read beyond the contents page. Nevertheless, he was confronted with the spectre of Fallujah by her, and responded by asserting that what he saw there was simply the “Ba’ath Party and Al Qaeda against the American army” thereby recycling the official propaganda of the US military. Cohen, while rightly excoriating those who fail to look such enemies in the face has nevertheless fallen into the reductionist fallacy of implicitly justifying, or simply ignoring, criminal abuses because besides the civilian deaths they also kill jihadists.

It remains to be said that Cohen’s book is both a brave and compelling work which should not be casually dismissed. Yet it appears to me that he may be trying to have his cake and eat it. By situating solidarity with Iraqis as the all-encompassing issue, regardless of one’s original position on the war, Cohen manages to evade the need for a retrospective analysis of his own position of support. He doesn’t write in favour of the war itself now but nor does he write against the original decision. Thus, one must allow for the fact that such a position, be it intended or unintended, has allowed Cohen to avoid reviewing his original position in the way Aaronovitch, Hari and Norman Geras (all have now said they wouldn’t have supported the war) have or as Christopher Hitchens on the pro-war left has. It may be in the hope of flushing out something more explicit and concrete from Cohen that Hari has written this extensive review almost six months after the original publication of What’s Left? In any case, it is now a necessity that we hear from Cohen on this point as we have from others- and soon.

Postscript: It has now been confirmed that the forthcoming autumn edition of Dissent magazine will feature Nick’s response.

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