The worst traditions of the liberal-left are flourishing while the best are rusting from underuse.
– Nick Cohen, What’s Left?, p.361
The key point made by Nick Cohen in his book What’s Left? is the shift over recent decades in the Left’s basic principles and motivations.
In the thirties, forties and afterwards, the Left’s key guiding principles included:
- Anti-fascism: as Cohen points out, if there is one thing the Left could be relied upon to do from the 1930s onwards, it was to oppose fascism (albeit this often leading to double standards as contrasted with the frequent apologism for left-authoritarians).
- Solidarity with those fighting against oppression around the world: democratic socialists, trade unionists, feminists and so on.
- Universal values: a belief that what was right in the west (democracy, human rights, freedom and so on) was right anywhere in the world.
However, a fundamental shift has occurred in many sections of the Left, a recalibration of its “moral compass”:
- Fascism has been replaced as the “great opponent” by America, Israel, the West, “the hegemon”.
- As a result, solidarity is denied to those (such as Iraqi trade unionists or socialists) whose oppressors are themselves opponents of America, Israel or the West, even if those oppressors are fascistic (such as Baathists or Islamists).
- Universal values are seen as an instrument of western hegemony: just because it’s wrong in the West to oppress women or to be racist or homophobic, doesn’t mean we should “impose” those values on other cultures.
If there is one thing I think is missing from Cohen’s analysis, it’s providing a positive statement, in broad terms, of what a revived “decent Left” should look like. The answer to that is implicit in his book, I think, but it would be useful to draw this out more.