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Kamm on Cohen

I conversed a little with Alan Johnson, the editor of Democratiya, when I was compiling Hitch's dossier on George Galloway more than a year ago. I wish I could say that I "know" Alan, but the plain truth is I … Read More

By / March 16, 2007

I conversed a little with Alan Johnson, the editor of Democratiya, when I was compiling Hitch's dossier on George Galloway more than a year ago. I wish I could say that I "know" Alan, but the plain truth is I don't, because I still can't understand how someone could so consistently put out a bimonthly literary journal that demands reading cover to cover. Usually you open a review and take an interest in one or two of the advertised pieces, not all of them. Democratiya cheats only slightly in its advantage by being as nostalgic as it is forward-looking, recycling old material (nothing wrong with that on the left) with its continued relevance in mind.

A note to aspiring start-up publications: See what you can get away with in terms of plumbing the archives for old essays and speeches. Everyone from Sidney Hook to Nye Bevin to Tony Blair has graced Democratiya's table of contents.

I've only just got through, in the latest issue, Oliver Kamm's anticipated review of Nick Cohen's What's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way, which, among us Eustonians, is the polemic of the hour.

Some of the references to ancient and localized struggles (Eric Hobsbawm and Raymond Williams as young apparatchiks, anyone?) don't travel so easily across the Atlantic. But it's worth emphasizing that contests within the British left are worrisome for the same reason they're healthy — they're waged out in the open. In the United States, whatever passes for leftist factionalism (usually a question of whether we should pull out all troops from Iraq, or just some) is whispered and semi-occluded, and therefore more dangerous. No one wants to be seen as a defender of George W. Bush's war policy, which is why the editors of The New Republic can't go a week without apologizing for their former pro-regime change alignment.

At the more popular level, activists will attended so-called antiwar demonstrations on the streets of New York and San Francisco, not knowing — or really caring — that Ramsey Clark's Stalinist organization ANSWER is the main engine behind the events. And they'll say that Michael Moore doesn't actually mean to depict prewar Iraqi children as doe-eyed, kite-flying innocents; he's just doing it for "dramatic" effect to underscore the imperialist criminality of deposing Saddam in the first place.

In the UK, at least Saddam is explicitly defended by the RESPECT and Socialist Workers parties. It's right there in their literature.

To even indicate that American liberals often objectively side with monsters is to run the risk of being accused of attacking "fringe" elements at the expense of conveniently eliding an engagement with the "mainstream." Well, the fringe does infiltrate and shape the opinions of the mainstream. Funny that such a concept should be so hard to comprehend when leftists routinely account for White House foreign policy by using neoconservative as an adjective to modify cabal.

The driving force behind the American contingent of Euston, therefore, is to show that this liberal mainstream is either too myopic or too stupid to realize the bedfellows it makes. In Britain, the job does itself:

Unsophisticated though it may be to say so, a Left worth its name and honouring its traditions ought to be defending the principles of secularism, science and liberty rather than worrying about the offence they might cause. Yet the principle of a common citizenship under law is – from my experience at least, and recalling that Livingstonian conference in January – a sectarian and even fringe position on the Left. When the declared leaders of religious and other groups assert a claim to be heeded in public debate, they speak as sectional interests. Every time you hear the word 'community' in a BBC report try replacing it with 'lobby', and you'll get some idea of the prominence of these demands. A democratic society does not elevate group identities; it aims to supersede them. What's Left? is a spirited and elegant exposition of what ought to be axiomatic on the Left, and extraordinarily is not.

 

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