In a post earlier today, Jonathan Derbyshire quotes from (some of?) his forthcoming interview with Nick Cohen, "in which he and I discuss his forthcoming book What's Left?" I suspect that I will have plenty to take issue with in Cohen's book, but I've yet to see a copy, and so will reserve my comments to simply trying to work out what Jonathan (and Cohen) mean in the following. Cohen is quoted as saying, "Because you’re no longer a socialist putting forward a programme, you don’t have to stand for anything. That’s why so many people read Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore – they don’t have to commit to anything. They just have to jeer." Jonathan calls this a "chastening diagnosis" He goes on to say, "at least in setting it out Cohen shows that there is still an alternative on the left to Chomsky’s suave nihilism and Moore's lumpen idiocies."

The only coherent reason for singling out Chomsky and Moore in this way is that they are both bestselling authors. Politically their methods are miles apart and, whilst no doubt many people buy books by both writers, their agendas and their constituencies are very different too. Moore's populism is useful for puncturing the pomposity of the powerful; Chomsky's critiques are far more considered and careful. Regardless of this, I take objection to Cohen's statement that those who read Chomsky and Moore do so merely to "jeer". Of course, when one buys a book one commits to nothing whatsoever. But many of those who have bought books by Chomsky and Moore, like I'm sure some who will buy Cohen's book, do so because of a profound interest in what is going on in the world. Those books represent just part of a way that they might begin to understand and engage in it. Further, I have no idea whatsoever how Chomsky can be called a "nihilist" (Derbyshire I'm sure knows what this word means, so I have no idea why he applies it). I'm guessing that it might be because Chomsky offers a partial critique of the Left from the Left, but I'm unsure. And the phrase "Moore's lumpen idiocies" sounds like the silliest kind of snobbery to me.

What underlies this rather forceless little attack on Moore and Chomsky, and those who read them, is Cohen's statement, followed by Jonathan's comment that "‘socialism as a practical political project is simply dead.’ What remains is the anti-imperialism of fools." What that actually equates to meaning is that those who opposed the war in Iraq, and the subsequent killing of 650,000 Iraqi civilians, are idiots. Well, I'm an idiot then. I console myself by thinking, nay jeering, that at least I know what nihilism means.

Readers Comments

  1. "Cheering on the murders of civilians is not going to help here."

    Unless, presumably, those murders where in Haditha, Fallujah and innumerable other exceptions to the rule.

    "The main thing now is to support Iraqis as they try to rebuild a shattered country."

    OK, but does that include supporting the Iraqis in their unanimous wish for an end to the shattering occupation?

  2. Hi Max, Steve,
    I keep hearing phrases like "Whatever your views on the war, surely the main thing now is to support Iraqis as they try to rebuild a shattered country". What angers me is that those who are saying this are the ones who supported the war and therefore helped facilitate the killing of 650,000 people. This was not an unforeseen disaster.
    Condemning that "section of the left [that] tries to portray this vicious insurgency as a heroic resistance against Yankee imperialism [and in] doing so ... has sold out to the far right" is, arguably, one thing. But it very conveniently forgets that it was "Yankee imperialism" that caused this shit-storm. And it is an argument made by people who supported that very "Yankee imperialism" in the first place.
    (BTW, where/when has John Pilger expressed support for those "who have killed Iraqi socialists, democrats and trade unionists"?)

  3. I've read some excerpts of the book and found them rather mawkish (his childhood etc.) and the analysis far from penetrating.

    Still, someone needs to shine a light on the fact that there are people on the so-called left who feel the need to cheer on those who slit the throats of train-drivers in Iraq and who kill women on the way to vote in Afghanistan. In read in this month's Prospect that the nail parlours of Kabul are doing a roaring trade so there's progress of sorts that will no doubt disgust bien-pensants who think that people should live under feudal conditions of theocratic patriarchy that's preferable to a hated Washington consensus consumerism (or at least if you don't have to live under them yourself).

    By all means attack Cohen's work and line of argument but stop letting the facile and quite frankly sickening views of the rump Stop The War Coalition (as most decent war critics have now deserted the loons who remain in charge) go without scrutiny.

  4. Andrew,

    I'm not speaking for, nor have I ever supported, the Stop The War Coalition, which is run, I think, by the deluded SWP.

    Those on the Left or Right that "cheer on those who slit the throats of train-drivers in Iraq and who kill women on the way to vote in Afghanistan" should most certainly be vociferously condemned.

    And, clearly, those who supported the creation of the conditions under which such atrocities are taking place, those who supported the war, should also be condemned.

    One can hate "theocratic patriarchy" without thinking that the best way of getting rid of it is to bomb the crap out of those people forced to live under it. Nor is hating "theocratic patriarchy" mutually exclusive with also hating liberal imperialism. It should be perfectly clear that condemning Cohen, STWC, Bush & Blair and deskbound war-mongers is entirely coherent and sensible.


  5. Further, what really angers me, is the attempt, by supporters of the killing of 650,000 Iraqis, to focus on the idiot politics of much of the Left, and the murderous antics of the disposessed, and yet refuse to recognise that the war, and their support of it, is the criminal, villainous atrocity here.

  6. I'm glad we agree.

  7. Indeed, the tragic thing about those like Nick Cohen (and his comrade in arms David Aranovitch) are that they are more concerned with attacking those who opposed the war, and continue to oppose the occupation, than with those causing on-going destruction in Iraq, and who have been responsible for lying to voters to start the war.

    Whether or not they support the Stop the War coalition, which isn't "run" by the SWP, it is a coalition, of which the SWP is one part, the vast majority of people in Britain believe that the government made a mistake and should be made accountable for it - that's why Channel 4 can make and show a program called "The Trial of Tony Blair".

    Cohen and friend's problem, is that in siding with Mr. Blair's plans they have managed to find themselves in a position where they are very much holding a minority view. The only way they can justify this, is to paint those they don't agree with labels such as support of terrorists. No one wants to see more British or American troops killed - which is why the Stop the War coalition calls for a withdrawel of the occupying troops. Which brings me to the last point.

    If "main thing now is to support Iraqis as they try to rebuild a shattered country" which I am all in favour of, the thing we need to do is to end the occupation. Iraq is NOT being rebuilt. The only things being built there are US military compounds. The presence of occupying troops can only hinder the process of rebuilding - because they create more divisions, and kill more people, and destroy more towns.

    BTW, for more on the "pro-war left", especially Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch, I'd recommend Richard Seymours article in the latest IS Journal, if you don't mind reading something published by the "deluded" SWP that is.

  8. Aren't the SWP too busy denying the Holocaust these days than a trifling matter like Iraq? Though RSB regular Michael Rosen probably has more to say on the subject than I, having experienced the full brunt of democratic centralist censorship by the deluded dialectitians of late on this very issue.

  9. While this is not the place for an extended debate on the political positions of the SWP, it is the only place to to respond to an appalling piece of slander in the previous comment. The SWP has never "denied the holocaust". The SWP's members and it's publications have done everything they can to expose, protest and stop the political heirs of Hitler, in their current form in the BNP. I myself took part in a demonstration against the BNP in Dagenham just before Christmas. The BNP are holocaust deniers, and this is yet another reason to expose and protest against them.

    To say that the SWP, however much you may disagree with aspects of their politics are holocaust deniers is nothing less than slander, worthy of an apology.

    RSB regular, Mike Rosen certainly has made no such claim, and indeed, Lindsey German dedicates her column in the latest issue of Socialist Review to the importance of marking Holocaust Memorial Day. That article can be read

  10. Cohen, who I used to admire, now just basically writes the same column for the Observer every single week with the words in a slightly different order each time. This book will undoubtedly be the same column writ large. That there is a small kernel of truth in what he says (i.e. wrong-headed sympathy for Islamism in sections of the left etc.) makes him still (just) readable, but does not excuse the monstrously misleading generalisations he makes, still less his continued delusional support for the murderous Iraqi farrago.

    Strange and sad to think that as recently as 2002 he was writing such emminently sensible pieces as this:-

  11. I don't think I believe that Cohen is a Blairite stooge - I said that they "sided" with Blair's plans. And they did. The tragedy is that they continue to spend most of their ammunition shooting at those who oppose the war, and oppose the occupation, not those who lied their way into the tragedy.

    Everyone's got a favourite poll or polls, here are mine

    Most Iraqis Favor Immediate U.S. Pullout - Washington Post, Sep 27 2006,

    Another (or perhaps the same - you provide no link) WPO poll at

    Shows 50% of Iraqi's supporting attacks on US troops, and a majority wanting removal of Troops on varying time lines.

    and another Sep. 2006 poll, from Progress shows higher support still for attachs on US troops, and 71% wanting immediate troop pullout.

    However saying that, even if a majority of Iraqis wanted the troops to stay, I'd still call for them to be brought home. I'm not in favour of occupying troops - particularly ones who have nothing but an imperialist agenda.

    I don't claim to speak for the Iraqi people, and nor do the pages of Socialist Worker. It's a long held belief on the left that people's national destiny should be a matter of self-determination. The furture of Iraq should be decided by the people of Iraq. The majority of whom seem to want to have the troops removed as soon as possible - a position held by a significant proportion of the population of the UK like Max.

  12. Max, far from changing the subject, I was pointing out that support for the invasion and occupation was itself "cheering on" the murder of civilians. So you do in fact support the killing of civilians by "coalition forces" otherwise you wouldn't have supported the invasion. "An historic opportunity" - what utterly sickening naivete.

  13. Resolute,

    You're quite right. I should have qualified my remarks to say offer aid and comfort to those who seek to deny the Holocaust or at least ally themselves with such people (hence the Rosen allusion, as regards his recent slap-down from on high).

    And I also agree that RSB is not the forum for analysing the activities of a handful of bedsitters hanging around ex-polys, who have about as much chance of influencing political outcomes as Jade Goody and her boyfriend.

    Consider this an apology.

  14. Max, thanks for bringing this up, because it's an issue on which I have to say I think Nick is being rather disingenuous:

    "Many of the people who supported the war initially were Iraqi dissidents who saw a historic opportunity to get rid of Saddam."

    This is actually a rather misleading picture of Iraqi dissident opinion. The two main Iraqi left-wing parties (the ICP and the WCPI) were both strongly against the war and against the occupation - the ICP had a short period in the interim government, but has had a consistent troops-out line otherwise. The Iraqi trade unions have also for the most part been against the occupation. There were only two Iraqi groups who were consistently in favour of the war, and neither of them should be considered wholly representative:

    1: Iraqi Kurdish representative groups (particularly the PUK). Iraqi Kurdistan was on the eve of the war a more or less autonomous region living under the protection of the no-fly zone. They certainly hated Saddam and wanted justice for the atrocities committed in the 1980s, but they weren't actually anticipating living with the occupation, and in fact have seen far less chaos than the non-Kurdish Iraqis since the invasion.

    2: The other, very well-connected and well-publicised Iraqi dissident group in favour of the war was the Iraqi National Congress, led by Mr Ahmad Chalabi. This is quite important, because it was the INC that Nick Cohen was very close to - he wrote a long article comparing it to the ANC, and thus comparing Chalabi to Nelson Mandela. Events have rather gone against this position, in that Chalabi has credibly been accused of having been an Iranian spy.

    Nick doesn't mention either Chalabi or the INC in his book at all, and indeed hasn't mentioned them in his journalism since 2004 as far as I can tell. It's really rather poor. When I challenged him on this on the Guardian online chat, he didn't answer the point on Chalabi and claimed that it was the PUK and the Iraqi trades unions who agreed with him.

    by the way, just so we can get this SWP thing put completely to bed, Andrew has been misinformed (I think, by the Harry's Place blog) with respect to Michael Rosen. The headline of the Harry's Place post about his latest article certainly made it look like Rosen had been censored or subjected to party discipline, but if you look at the actual story it was covering, it was just about some critical letters being printed in "Socialist Worker".

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