Been reading 'Waiting For the Etonians' by Nick Cohen and came across an article that really made me think.

If someone had asked me, "Are you politically Left or Right?" I would have answered "Left' without hesitation.

This article has made me realise I didn't really know what being 'Left' means these days.

Here's the article

It was written in 2008.

I really would be interested in people's opinions on this one.

Cheers, Joe

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What an interesting topic. My personal feelings and beliefs were influenced by reading the books of Upton Sinclair. He was a very well connected American (believe it or not) socialist. The Worlds End series of books described very well the period between the wars in Europe and America. He wrote of the education work that was done by informal but persistant workers schools and the concern was for body and soul amongst those doing the teaching. Much was accomplished with little but pure persistance until the capitalists of the day decided that they didn't like this much and proceede to demonise them all and brand them communist. Does that sound similair to the current efforts to turn those that disagree in to 'terrorists'? Obviously if it worked once it could work again and so it has proved.

I did have the advantage of growing up just after WW2 and people were still supportive of each other and concerned that the future should be more equitable than the have/have not past.

I do agree that 'leftism' has lost its way and now has a very soft focus and think that this can be attributed to the relentless attacks of materialism which appeals to the roots of basic greed.

We have been seduced from basic human ethics which show concern for one another and the capitalists have made work into a destabilising force. We are all so fearful for ourselves that the plight of others becomes just noise.

How we begin to make a sensible statement about what it is to be left I really don't know. Maybe it all has to crash so that we rely on the sheer altruism of the survivors.

Maybe when the educated elite realise that they aren't inventing anything new to make money the system will reverse itself

Hi Christine

When you say "Much was accomplished with little but pure persistance until the capitalists of the day decided that they didn't like this much and proceede to demonise them all and brand them communist. Does that sound similair to the current efforts to turn those that disagree in to 'terrorists'? Obviously if it worked once it could work again and so it has proved", you remind me very much of the posts from Media Lens, such as

It's worth signing up for posts from Media Lens, they cost nothing. I've just started reading the book mentioned in the link above.

When you say "I do agree that 'leftism' has lost its way and now has a very soft focus and think that this can be attributed to the relentless attacks of materialism which appeals to the roots of basic greed", you remind me of what David Harvey says in his book 'A Brief History of Neoliberalsim'.


An open project around the restoration of economic power to a small elite would probably not gain much popular support. But a programmatic attempt to advance the cause of individual freedoms could appeal to a mass base and so disguise the drive to restore class power. Furthermore, once the state apparatus made the neoliberal turn it could use its powers of persuasion, co-optation, bribery, and treat to maintain the climate of consent necessary to perpetuate its power. This was Thatcher and Reagan’s particular forte…

Coercion can produce a fatalistic, even abject, acceptance of the idea that there was and is, as Margaret Thatcher kept insisting, ‘no alternative’.


It might be worth reading through selected quotes from that book

I enjoyed the sections which you have quoted from the book, makes you think doesn't it.

I expect that I would be steriotyped as an ageing middle class, stick in the mud bloke.

Worse than that, an un -Blairite, hanging on to a state pension, and hoping that some of my investments will come good for my children and grand children.

Yet I have always been thought of as leftist.

What the article, and no doubt the book, is arguing is that things change. I would suspect it depends on from where are we looking, from the bottom of the pile looking up, from the middle looking both ways, or from the top looking down.

The flat earth society still can't see that the world is round, even after that guy jumped from miles above it last week.

Perhaps one of the most important discussions of our time. Agree to an extent with the analysis that locates the (apparent but perhaps premature) decline of the left in the context of the undoubted onsalught of neo liberal inspired politics, culture and economic models, and also in the confused politics of authoritarian and 'elite' socialists - whether of the Moscow or Hampstead variety!

I've been reading Owen Jones Chavs (the demonization of the working class). Not finished yet but his description of the deliberate war on the working class in the 80s and 90s first by Thatcher and then 'new labour' governments adds a further context perhaps to this discussion  It was done to 'enable' neo liberalism to flourish and better the intertests of the top 1-5% of society, but also out of disgust or total diconnect with working class lives. Initiated by the political right but embraced by many on the left who perhaps were those Cohen described as either disillusioned with the working classes revolutionary inaction or those of slightly eugenic tradition of socilism who secretly found mass behavior slightly unsavory!

Anyway I am perhaps falling into that old left wing trap of endless analysis of where things went wrong and looking to blame somone (often others on the left). The more intersting question is the one you ask Joe - What does it mean to be left now. Will give that some more thought and get back!!

I really do hope you get back to us with your thoughts on this matter Steve - and soon please, if you don't mind.
This is a topic that I, like yourself, consider to be very important and expected a better response than has happened so far. That might be because it's a hard question to come to grips with.
Like he says in the article, from the 1810s to the 1980s socialism defined what it meant to be left wing - believing that the common ownership of the means of production offered the best way forward for humanity.
Left-of-centre advocates saw state control as the means to hold capitalist exploitatory power in check and the route to that end was via the political party.
The amazing success of the neoliberal project has changed all that, irrevocably!  So ingrained has corporate mentality become within the political process that politics now serves the market rather than protect the public from the market's worse excesses or hold it responsible for any detrimental consequences. For example, the banks now know for certain that the governments will bail them out when risky speculation backfires and make further cuts to public services to finance the rescue package.
Before you come to any conclusions, may I recommend you to check out the link in the discussion that has just been introduced by a member of the Equality NW Group here:
Hi Peter, Steve, Christine,
That question 'what does it mean to be left' has remained unanswered at the back of my mind since I read the article I referred to and I understand Steve wondering if it is perhaps one of the most important discussions of our time.
I've just this minute finished reading John Sullivan's 'As Soon As This Pub Closes' - twenty short essays on various left factions, as you'll see by clicking this link
Born into a North of England working class situation, claiming to be 'left' is probably instinctive, as mentioned in the introduction to this discussion,
The above satirical, often amusing, expose of what being left can involve has given me lots to think about and I welcome your comments, if you can find time to read it too.
Cheers, Joe

    "Being a leftist is a lifestyle choice. It carries no costs and no obligations."

   This quote is perhaps the core point of Nick Cohen's article and it pretty much sums up his general attitude and approach to discussions with, or about, socialists and socialism.

   If I were launching a discussion on the nature of leftism then I would not take anything Nick Cohen has said or written as my starting point. Cohen long ago gave up any claim to hold progressive leftist beliefs or principles and it is quite reasonable for any socialist to regard him as a hostile right wing commentator (and racists, and apologists for racism, including Zionism, fail a basic criteria for inclusion in the socialist club). Having said that, he cites example scenarios which, while crudely exaggerated, still have enough truth in them to ring bells of recognition. This is the essence of a caricature after all.

  Cohen takes the examples (and I accept that there are several) of supposedly leftist groups and organisations allying themselves with Islamist clerical fascists - in the UK notably the SWP and the Gorgeous Georgites in Respect - and uses this to denounce the entire socialist left as having no moral or political principles. He accuses the left (and liberals - as if the terms were interchangeable) of using opportunistic and relativist criteria to deny requests for support from oppressed groups, especially in the developing world, but also here in the UK (and Sweden). Again these accusations have enough truth in them to strike chords in many people but they are not intelligent critiques of a leftist or socialist outlook or analysis. They are crude generalisations used to slander and de-legitimise an entire political movement and write off everything it stands for as bankrupt and corrupt.

   So what is Left? What do socialists believe in? The question itself is not as daft as it sounds because these days many people (including some who think of themselves as being on the left) are unsure. There are various tends, factions and traditions on the socialist left but they all have some common factors. Socialists believe in the collective organisation of working people, they believe in common ownership and control of the principal means of production, distribution and exchange (though this does not necessarily mean nationalised state monopolies), they believe that class is the major dividing factor in society and they believe in the basic equality of peoples (though not necessarily that everybody is, or should be equal in every respect).

   Most socialists believe in the collective responsibility of society (the state) to care for those unable to care for themselves and to guarantee access to the basic necessities of life, but welfarism does not equate to socialism. There are various texts and writings that describe and define socialism and its many forms but none of them should be seen as absolutely definitive. There is no socialist "scripture" but there are basic criteria which define who is, and who is not, a socialist.

   Socialists hold to a variety of beliefs and some factions may be quite hostile to others (sectarianism was always a problem from the earliest days in the nineteenth century). However, it is reasonable to say that those who hold to none of the beliefs outlined above (such as the leadership of the Labour Party) are not socialists by any reasonable definition of the word.

   People are not born socialists or leftists, although they may be born into a leftist tradition. Leftists are people who have reached rational and thought out conclusions about society, economics and politics, but these are often coloured and influenced by their own experiences and perceptions (and class interests). The crimes of Stalin or Pol Pot do not invalidate the socialist idea any more than the right wing accept that the failure of the free market to prevent, famine, dictatorship, or state sponsored mass murder in capitalist countries invalidates their preferred political/economic model (and politics and economics are one and the same).

   It is not necessary to be a Marxist to be a leftist but it is necessary to have some understanding of the nature of class society to know which side you are on. So, although there is no socialist bible, Marx and Engels 'Communist Manifesto' provides a clear and simple analysis of bourgeois society that is as relevant now as it was in 1848. It is a pamphlet which takes an hour or two to get through so it's worth reading.

   Finally, names and labels are important but often misleading - and often deliberately used to mislead. The lazy journalistic cliche of "the collapse of Communism" is an example. None of the states which fell in 1989-91 actually claimed to have achieved "Communism" (no state ever has) and modern China is no more "Communist" than the "Democratic Republic of Congo" is a democracy. The Iraqi wing of the "Pan Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party" under Saddam Hussain was in fact a fascist party, and so was the Italian Social Movement (MSI). It is what you do and what you stand for that defines you, not what you say you are or what you are labelled by others. Being on the left does carry obligations - the most obvious is to be involved in activity (subject to your means and abilities). Nick Cohen is right to say that "liberals" whose political commitment extends only as far as having Naomi Klein or Michael Moore on their bookshelves are hypocrites, but his actual intention is to denigrate all those who work for a better and fairer society. Treat him with the contempt he deserves.


Steve, I don't know Nick Cohen's work well - but to me the writing referred to is of someone who is so passionately socialist, that he is highly distressed about what he sees as the crisis within the movement, that he is prepared to be completely honest about it.

He is excoriating about the problem which he describes as 'Leftism', and I feel this is accurate.

He is not fully sure what has happened to socialism, perhaps, to allow this phenomenon, but he has the courage to honestly report it.

I think that the answer is that socialism has become identified with authoritarianism, and discredited in the light of that - in the popular mind.

In order to revive socialism, we have to look at communitarIan writers such as Henry Tam, recently mentioned by Joe, who expose the problem - as being the rise of individualism...being presented as the philosophical necessity for guarding against authoritarianism.

It isn't, of course - in fact, individualism inevitably leads to authoritarianism.

What Nick is striving after, I would strongly suggest, is a communitarian form if socialism which is inclusive across all societal barriers caused by accident of birth, gender, ethnic or religious background.

If this so, he needs to be strongly applauded for speaking out in this way.

Hello Harry, Steve R and others

Just spotted your last two important exchanges. I have followed Nick Cohen's writings in the Observer and London Evening Standard for some years. Perhaps Harry doesn't know that Cohen was an outspoken supporter of the Blair-Bush invasion of Iraq and subscribes with them to the anti-Muslim crusade and contributes regularly to stoking up the "anti-terrorist" frenzy which has been used to justify authoritarian measures of all kinds. Yes, he is clever but if he is a socialist, it is a bizarre variety.

I agree strongly with Steve's point about the lazy journalistic cliche about the "collapse of communism".  Criminal leaders like Stalin used Marxist phraseology to justify their bureaucratic rule. Stalin probably killed more communists and socialists than Hitler.

Re Iraq - Hideous as Saddam Hussain's Baathist party became, it did not begin as a fascist party. I would not equate it with a fascist party. It was a nationalist movement that turned into an instrument of power for a corrupt minority.

Thank you very much, Harry, for articulating so well some of my own reactions to Steve’s post. Intemperate and inaccurate personal attacks often have the opposite results to those intended by the author and they did so in this instance. I view with distaste the irrational characterisation presented by Steve of what Cohen has written on this one point. I disagree with Cohen on many things, I'm sure you'll hear about them from Steve's brother and sister ideologues, but it is dishonest to deliberately mangle his arguments in this one regard as Steve has done.


While you clearly outline some of the issues you see as pertinent (authoritarianism, individualism etc) with which I agree, I can’t help but recognise an echo of the despair Orwell wrote about so feelingly eighty years ago. His despair with English Socialists then is reflected in what Cohen has to say now with particular reference to the unstinting support people like Steve offer to religious extremists; they appear to drive themselves down cul de sacs of ethical incompetence solely due to ideological fervour. And we know Steve recognises this failing because he makes such a point of it in his post. So why don’t we hear anything from him about how to correct this problem?


Because he is unrepentant. He reaffirms his ideological straitjacket. Tightens the buckles just a notch more so they fit more snugly. He doubles-down on his fervent support for religious extremists, so obviously set on the destruction of modern democratic conditions in the West (tyrranical, misogynist and brutal as they aim to be), for what appears solely to be their shared hatred of one of Steve’s chosen enemies. This is a gross political miscalculation that continues to cost support for left wing policies and will continue to do so while in place.

Other threads on here have bemoaned the lack of an effective opposition to Tory social engineering and I'd suggest a key part of becoming effective is to recognise the mistakes made in the past and drop the misguided support, currently mandatory for membership of left wing talking shops, for extremist preachings that are inimical to tolerant and free societies.


   I have just read your comment with incredulity.

   "...unstinting support people like Steve offer to religious extremists."

   "He doubles-down on his fervent support for religious extremists, so obviously set on the destruction of modern democratic conditions in the West (tyrranical, misogynist and brutal as they aim to be), for what appears solely to be their shared hatred of one of Steve’s chosen enemies."

   Please tell me who this Steve character you are referring to is and where he has expressed these sentiments you ascribe to him.

"What, me guv'nor? Nah! I'm offended you should fink such a fing."

Try playing the 'Offense Card' somewhere else. It's a disqualifying gambit in reasonable company.

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