As the poisonous dust of the destruction of the World Trade Center began to settle, what seemed to be a new and unfamiliar political landscape began to coalesce before us. Many began to appreciate that the familiar political landmarks of the Left – support for secularism over religious politics, the preference of democracy to tyranny, solidarity with progressives world-wide, a concern for the principles of anti-racism and gender equality – now had rather fuzzy edges.
Over the next few years, principles which once appeared to define what it meant to consider yourself “Left wing” seemed now to be expendable and optional. Lindsey German, the convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, famously described gay rights as a “shibboleth”, and went on to defend its coalition partner in RESPECT and the STWC, the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned “Muslim Association of Britain”, by comparing attacks on an organisation whose politics were once accurately described by the SWP founder, Tony Cliff, as “clerical fascist” to the Nazi “scapegoating” of “gays, trade unionists, Gypsies, socialists and, above all, Jews”. The outrage at the murder of the heroic Iraqi trade unionist, Hadi Saleh, by Baathists was dismissed as a ““hullabaloo” by the SWP’s leading intellectual. Over at the Guardian – Britain’s leading liberal daily – the Comment editor, Seumus Milne commissioned article after article from Muslim Brotherhood activists, including one urging the creation of a new Caliphate. Ken Livingstone famously embraced the homophobic theocratic Muslim Brotherhood cleric, Qaradawi, and then worked overtime to eviscerate the coalition of minority groups which were deeply worried by Qaradawi’s bigotry. When challenged, he compared the theologian who advocated terrorist attacks on civilians to a reformist Pope. The Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting – who had previously been best known for her excellent book on the conduct of the Channel Islanders under Nazi occupation – produced a soft-soaping interview of this nasty bigot. At a rally to oppose Israel’s campaign against Hizbollah, George Galloway gave a speech in which he explicitly “glorified” Hizbollah, while protesters waved posters bearing the image of Ayatollah Khomeni and posters declaring “We are all Hizbollah”.
These are a handful of those events of the last few years which made many of us on the Left ask: “Has the world changed, or have I changed?”
This much is commonplace. You’ve heard it all before.
What really surprised us wasn’t the jettisoning of old allies by key figures and organisations on the far Left – organisations which effectively ran the anti-war movement – and their replacement by new-found friendships with those on the clerical far-right. It was the reaction of many of those who were not aligned with the far left to our expressions of concern over the direction that parts of the progressive left were heading.
In his review of Nick Cohen’s new book, “What’s Left”, the editor of the New Statesman, John Kampfner, illustrates my point nicely. Nick Cohen’s analysis of the Left is premised on a fundamental error, he says: it mistakes a part of progressive opinion for the whole. Those who forged alliances with the Islamist far right were a “fringe cult”. The bulk of those active in Left politics are no supporters of the Caliphate. It is an error to mistake a small, but visible, part of the coalition which was forged in the wake of 9/11 for the whole. A similar point is made by most of the other critical reviews of Nick’s book, including Peter Oborne, who puts the point neatly:
Cohen erects paper tigers. It is easy to turn over the SWP. The key failing of the book is that nowhere does Cohen seriously engage with the mainstream, anti-war left. Cohen’s thesis simply does not begin to apply to the decent and honourable left-wing men and women who opposed the war…
In a limited way, they’re right. The mainstream anti-war Left was not well represented by George Galloway, Lindsey German or Andrew Murray. My dearest friend joined RESPECT at its inception, and left soon after he began to appreciate the nature of the alliance upon which it was based. The comments boxes of Harry’s Place gave space to people who had marched against the war to topple Saddam, and against Israel’s bombing of southern Lebanon, who simply felt that they could not link arms with a movement which glorified the vilest of reactionaries, in the name of opposing US foreign policy: and so stopped attending the rallies.
The question which remains is this. How did the British anti-war movement – composed of many “decent and honourable” people who have no truck with fascism of the clerical or secular variety – allow itself to be captured by a fringe cult of Islamists in alliance with revolutionary socialists, who were not so much anti-war, as supporters of the other side? Why was that alliance not challenged at its very inception? What happened to Left solidarity with Iraqi democrats and trade unionists, who are being slaughtered by Baathists and jihadists? Why did the Left not rally around the TUC Aid Iraq Appeal, which demonstrated that it was possible to oppose both US foreign policy, while giving real aid to our beleaguered trade unionist comrades in Iraq?
The answer to that question, I think, is both structural and ideological. Structually, the reason that British Left politics has been dominated, with unwarranted success, by a disproportionately visible red-brown alliance, is that it takes time and effort to organise a national campaign. The SWP is probably the only organisation capable of putting together such a campaign. It made the decision to go into alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, knowing full well what its politics are, No other group was in a position to challenge that decision effectively. Ken Livingstone jumped on the bandwagon, because he is naturally attracted by the glamour of street politics, and the electoral opportunity presented by the chance to play minority communities off against each other. Others tagged along, foolishly, or strategically.
A part of the answer is that it isn’t at all clear what it means to be on the left at the moment. I doubt if anyone can tell you what a society significantly more left wing than ours would look like and how its economy and government would work (let alone whether a majority of their fellow citizens would want to live there). Socialism, which provided the definition of what it meant to be on the left from the 1880s to the 1980s, is gone. Disgraced by the communists’ atrocities and floored by the success of market-based economies, it no longer exists as a coherent programme for government. Even the modest and humane social democratic systems of Europe are under strain and look dreadfully vulnerable.
It is not novel to say that socialism is dead. My argument is that its failure has brought a dark liberation to people who consider themselves to be on the liberal left. It has freed them to go along with any movement however far to the right it may be, as long as it is against the status quo in general and, specifically, America. I hate to repeat the overused quote that ‘when a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything’, but there is no escaping it. Because it is very hard to imagine a radical leftwing alternative, or even mildly radical alternative, intellectuals in particular are ready to excuse the movements of the far right as long as they are anti-Western.
A bold and self confident Left wing and progressive movement would have sniffed out the alliance with the religious-political far right at the very outset. It would have striven to defend muslims, while fighting against Islamists. It would have put its energies into building alliances with democrats and progressives in the Arab world, and thrown itself into practical solidarity work with those forces. It would have captured the argument back from the likes of Melanie Phillips and Michael Gove, who see the rise of Islamism as a symptom of progressive decadence, and the decline of traditional conservative values.
Perhaps this is unfair. After all, prior to 2001, very few of us had a deep sense of the nature and goals of Islamist politics. When the 9/11 attacks took place, Al Qaeda’s obscure quest for a kingdom of perfect divine justice on earth was translated, through reflexive third worldism, into a kind of protest against global capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, and the depredation of the environment. Having made that error, it was easy to mistake gradualist Islamist movements – particularly those, like the Muslim Brotherhood, which see no advantage in terrorist attacks on British civilians – as moderates, potential allies, and even (relative) progressives.
Well, we all should know by now that this is not true. What remains to be seen is whether the mainstream Left can regain its momentum, refuse to treat with reactionaries, and recapture the leadership of progressive politics.
That is why it is not to late to ask: What’s Left?