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Jeremy Corbyn encapsulated everything that was deceitful about his campaign to be leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition when he claimed he wanted to prioritise “the needs of the poor and the human rights of us all”. From the point of view of the poor and the oppressed, his words were a grim joke.

Like many from the Left’s dark corners, Corbyn does not believe in the human rights of “us all”. He is concerned only with the rights of those whose oppression is politically useful. If the oppressed’s suffering can be blamed on the West, he will defend them. If not, he is on their enemies’ side.

A short and far from comprehensive tour of the regimes Corbyn has supported includes the geriatric Cuban dictatorship, the corrupt and extraordinarily incompetent Chavistas who have come close to bankrupting oil-rich Venezuela, and Russian imperialists who have used force to redraw Europe’s boundaries.

You will not understand how a sickness on the Left has spread from the fringes to the mainstream, unless you pause, take a deep breath, pour a stiff drink and contemplate the strangeness of that list for a moment. In the 20th century, it would have had a kind of coherence. Cuba was then and remains a Communist country. Far-leftists, and indeed many who were not Marxists, placed the Castro dictatorship’s record in providing healthcare above its record of denying democratic rights, human rights and trade union rights. Their refusal to confront oppression may have been scandalous. But they were socialists so you could understand how they could reserve their condemnations for fascistic or conservative regimes. No one in the rich world took much notice of Venezuela before the millennium. But if you had explained that a socialist party would take power, jail opponents and restrict press freedom, they would have understood that the same double standards would apply to Chavez. As for Russia, our time travellers would assume that by “Russia” Corbyn meant the Soviet Union, and once again, they would have slotted his support into traditional notions of Left and Right.

The malaise on the modern Left becomes evident only when you remember what century you are living in. Russia does not pretend to be socialist now. It is a dictatorial kleptocracy, whose oligarchs stash their stolen money in Mayfair, Saint-Tropez and Palm Beach, and whose leader sends his armies over Russia’s borders to grab the territory of neighbouring states. Putin boasts to the world that he wants to be the leader of its reactionary and illiberal forces. He is committed to adventurism and the repression of minorities, particularly homosexuals. Modern Russia is the heir to the Tsarist empire, which 19th-century liberals and socialists feared above all other powers.

Corbyn, like so many on the far Left, does not fear Russia. Nor does he care that UKIP and the French National Front defend Putin because they admire a regime that loathes the European Union as much as they do. The far left has never been comfortable with the EU either. However, it indulges Putin because, as Corbyn explained in the old Communist daily, the Morning Star, “the EU and Nato have now become the tools of US policy in Europe”. From this, it follows that all attempts by the former occupied nations of Europe to protect themselves from their old imperial master are American-backed provocations which goad a justly affronted Russia. Or as Corbyn put it, “The expansion of Nato into Poland and the Czech Republic has particularly increased tensions with Russia.”

We have a politician at the forefront of one of Europe’s great parties telling Poles that their country has no right to defend itself against an expansionist Russia. The man I suppose I now have to call the leader of the British Left is defending a classically reactionary power. Those who have kept their eyes open won’t be shocked. Opposition to the West is the first, last and only foreign policy priority of many on the Left. It accounts for its disorientating alliances with movements any 20th-century socialist would have no trouble in labelling as extreme right-wing.

Not just Corbyn and his supporters but much of the liberal Left announce their political correctness and seize on the smallest sexist or racist “gaffe” of their opponents. Without pausing for breath, they move on to defend radical Islamist movements which believe in the subjugation of women and the murder of homosexuals. They will denounce the anti-Semitism of white neo-Nazis, but justify Islamist anti-Semites who actually murder Jews in Copenhagen and Paris. In a telling vignette, Corbyn himself defended a vicar from the supposedly liberal and tolerant Church of England who had promoted the conspiracy theory that Jews were responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Opponents who called for the church authorities to discipline him were not anti-racists fighting an ideology that had led to the murder of millions. On the contrary, said Corbyn, the vicar was the victim, “under attack” because he had “dared to speak out against Zionism”.

When the far Left shades into the far Right, I am tempted to hug the centre and treat it as our best protection against the poisonous and the deranged. Respectable commentators have urged Labour members to do the same. They failed to understand that in Labour’s case the centre ground is as polluted as any derelict site.

Whenever I argue with Labour people about Corbyn’s record of support for repressive and reactionary movements,  most find comfort in “whataboutery”. What about the West’s support for Saudi Arabia? What about Palestine? I reply that they ought to defend universal human rights and support a just settlement for Palestinians, while fighting radical Islam at home and abroad, by condemning Saudi Arabia in one breath and Russia in the next. But few are convinced. Now that may be because they are so certain of their righteousness they cannot see a double standard when it is staring them in the face. Perhaps they are the left-wing version of UKIP’s little Englanders, who do not care how Venezuelans, Russians, Cubans, Ukrainians and Syrians are treated.

But maybe there are good as well as shabby reasons why Corbyn’s past has failed to detach supporters from his cause. Until now the hypocritical, and in my view despicable, strain of thought that Corbyn represents has been dominant in the universities, the arts, political comedy and much, but not all, of the left-wing media. In what passes for liberal culture it is commonplace to condemn Western crimes while ignoring or excusing the crimes of anti-Western regimes and movements. But, politically, what artists and academics think has had little effect. The attitude of a British government that puts arms contracts before human rights in its dealings with, say, Saudi Arabia mattered far more for the glaringly obvious reason that it was in power and the Left was not.

Friends and comrades have ignored those of us who warned for years about the ugly turn much of left-wing thought has taken. Why, they ask, should we waste our political energies on minor Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs who pander to anti-Semitism or writers who cheer on Islamists while hounding Muslim liberals? Real power, the power that mattered and needed opposing, lay elsewhere.

They did not understand that cultural power will eventually become political power, if no one takes the time to challenge it. Millions voted for UKIP because for decades civilised conservatives were too frightened or too lazy to take on the brutish arguments of the right-wing press. The rise of Corbyn represents the equal failure of a generation of moderate centre-left politicians and activists to recognise that ideology matters, and that if you do not take on your opponents’ ideas today, your opponents will take you over tomorrow.

Leftists have not listened for a second reason, which hardly anyone has mentioned. The centrist politicians they ask Labour members to admire can be as implicated with the world’s dictatorships as thoroughly as the far Left, not just for reasons of state when they are in office but as a means of personal enrichment when they leave it.

Do not think that support for Putin is confined to the extremes of politics. Peter Mandelson left government and founded a lobbying company called Global Counsel. Its clients include Putin’s tame oligarchs, most notably Oleg Deripaska. Lord Mandelson himself goes to St Petersburg to add what credibility he possesses to the propagandistic conferences Putin stages.

Jeremy Corbyn has never pocketed thirty pieces of silver. He says what he says because he means it, not because he has been paid to say it. This does not make him morally superior in my eyes. I distrust a convinced fanatic far more than I distrust an averagely compromised man. But my eyes are not the eyes of most Labour members. Mandelson has moved into a world they deplore. So has David Blunkett, who has joined the board of Oracle Capital, a group “dedicated to providing personalised services to high-net-worth individuals and their families,” with particular emphasis on offering advice to Russian and Chinese multimillionaires. So have dozens upon dozens of New Labour politicians and apparatchiks. So has, of course, Blair himself.

Peter Mandelson has only made enough to spend £8 million on a Regent’s Park home. Blair has made tens of millions advising regimes as corrupt and repressive as the dictatorships of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. We have seen nothing like this since Lloyd George’s day, perhaps not since the Georgian oligarchy. It is not just Labour members who are disturbed by the spectacle of an ex-prime minister using his contacts to join the global superrich. But Labour members find it more shocking than most. They expect their politicians to retire to chairs in academia, or to posts at the United Nations or some other international organisation or charity. They will not allow another generation of centrist politicians to use the Labour party as a stepping-stone to careers helping the rich maximise their fortunes. To put it another way, Blair has discredited Blairism, and Corbyn’s rise is a reaction to his decline.

In that decline you find a paradox as grotesque as the Left’s support for reactionary movements. However critical you were of Blair’s wars in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, his defenders could plausibly claim that he was sending troops to fight against tyrannical and, in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, genocidal regimes. By hiring himself out to Egypt, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, Blair has destroyed his democratic “legacy” more thoroughly than his enemies ever could.

If you step back and look towards the horizon, a dismal prospect comes into view. One wing of the Labour Party left office and latched onto a malign force in the world: the resource-rich states with large sovereign wealth funds and a vanishingly small concern for human rights. After the Western financial crisis, they were the freest spenders on earth, and Blair, Mandelson and dozens of others sucked long and heartily at their teats. Meanwhile, a second wing of the Labour Party latched on to equally powerful and equally malign anti-Western movements which hate not just the worst of our society but its best: democracy, human rights and sexual equality.

While writing this piece I have been uncomfortable using phrases like “the Left” or the “far Left”, and tried to add a few caveats. There are multiple Lefts in Britain, not one or two. I know many honourable Labour MPs and count good people in far-left groups among my friends. But the fact remains that the dominant movements in Labour politics over the past two decades have been, at best, indifferent and, at worst, hostile to the struggles of oppressed peoples. Unless Labour changes very fast and very soon, it will cease to be a force for good in the world. I hope I am wrong but I can’t see that change happening in my lifetime.

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Barry the Red
September 3rd, 2015
8:09 AM
Nick Cohen's discomfort in using terms relating to the Left is entirely justified. The mentality he describes should not be regarded as left. He is closer to the mark when he speaks of the left 'shading' into the Right. I don't think politics can be properly understood without the conceptual tool 'pseudo-left'. This should be widely popularised and then maybe a genuine left, that decries all imperialism, and supports democratic struggle, can be revived.

Former Journo
September 2nd, 2015
7:09 AM
Bloody hell, what a boring read. Doubt it would appeal to anyone other than a few Guardian readers. Do you make a decent living from this twaddle, Nick? I mean, seriously? People pay you for this?

August 31st, 2015
10:08 PM
This is what Jeremy Corbyn said in the Queens Speech on foreign policy; . So what different to the monster Nicj Cohen portrays him as. I have always rated Nick Cohen as a journalist and don't quite understand why he is so angry towards Corbyn.

August 31st, 2015
10:08 AM
Load of pompous horse faeces, sorry...

August 31st, 2015
9:08 AM
Agree with most of this article but by no means all of it as many of the readers' comments make pertinent observations which question some of the article's argument. Mr Cohen has his blind spots and one of them is the thrice mentioned UKIP. To write that they (UKIP) are 'little Englanders' who 'defend Putin' and, by implication, are 'brutish' is factually inaccurate, simplistic and plainly wrong. Bias and politically blinkered argument works both ways and Mr Cohen should step away from his Observer stronghold and allow himself time to re-think a few of his unaccountable-for prejudices.

August 29th, 2015
2:08 PM
The majority of people who are voting for Corbyn are not remotely interested in this historical pontification. They're interested in his low expenses, the fact that he's photographed getting the bus home, his commitment to a fairer society, the policies he is outlining. That's not to say that your points may not have validity (though your own bias is just as bad as the the one you are pointing the finger at). Ultimately, however, you, like many I see who are caught up in a middle class, London-centric bubble, are missing the whole point of Corbyn's popularity.

Paul Murdoch
August 29th, 2015
12:08 PM
I believe Nick Cohen's What's Left has just been re-released at what seems a more than opportune moment given the current convulsions within the Labour Party. It will serve as a timely reminder and warning of just what may go wrong should Corbynism defy all expectations and gain any long term traction. I am surprised therefore that the current tendency, from all sides, to settle on the "he's a nice guy, but..." assessment. Given the subject matter of the book, I'm surprised nobody is drawing parallels between Corbyn and the host of left wing 'intellectuals' of the 30s who could not bring themselves to condemn Stalinism and the Soviet Union. Those well-meaning egalitarian individuals who were so readily 'potemkined' through a sort of wilful blindness. Men and women who so craved a new fairer world order, who were so frustrated by the flaws of parliamentary democracy, who were so in thrall to radical intellectual fashion that they could tour the Soviet Union during some of the worst famines in human history and write home of full bellies and laughing proletarians. Those people like Corbyn and many of his supporters were doubtlessly 'nice' and doubtlessly operating with the best of intentions, but that's not enough in an adult human being. That sort of moral pretension is inexcusable in all but the adolescent. The preservation of one's ethical purity by selective redaction of any facts or events which might sully the 'brand', the logical twists undertaken to draw moral equivalences which condone barbarity are not the hallmarks of 'nice guys' acting in good faith. They are the actions of moral imbeciles. I still read articles which persist in painting the Cold War as a stand off between two irreconcilable ideologies as though we are meant to conclude we're disinterested observers looking upon the story of 'two houses alike in dignity'. We're not. At least not if we have read any serious history, if we possess any modicum of intellectual honesty, if we reject the meretricious appeals of radical chic (or whatever its contemporary might be called) and if we possess principles which can be brought to bear on a real and imperfect world rather than the idealised canvas which forms the ground of so many a sixth form psychodrama. The present day analogies are just too striking. Putin, Islamism... "What use is power without principle?" Answer: power; the ability to oppose injustice, to effect change, however messy and compromised the process; the agency to do more than strike poses, to be more than a posturing hypocrite. Yet the cocoon of perpetual ethical purity just seems too enveloping. Too many just won't break out. For every Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Shaw, Sartre, Wells, we have an Owen Jones, an Alistair Milne, a Monbiot, a Greewald, a Pilger or that ludicrous Penny woman. Just the other week in the Guardian, we had Oborne's whitewashing of Hizb it-Tahir which brought to mind (considerations of literary merit aside) HG Well's infamous conclusion "I have never mat a man so fair, candid and honest" following his grotesque interview with Stalin. Not that 'balance' wasn't restored. The Guardian followed up with a hatchet job of monumentally snide proportions on Majid Nawaaz based entirely on sly insinuation and anonymous quotations from-and the irony is just too sublime-a reporter whom it seems has fond memories of an uncle who turns out to have been one of Khomeni's butchers-in-chief...though one whose penchant for natty suits apparently mitigates his excesses since, I imagine, in Guardian circles a dash of hipsterism is always a progressive signifier. Now it would be a stretch to suggest the attack on Nawaaz or the regular defaming of Cohen have matched the calumnies launched against Koestler, Serge or Orwell for their crimes of clear sightedness and moral consistency but I do sincerely wish that the day will come when Cohen gets his 'told you so' moment a la Robert Conquest*. This day may be some time in arriving but when it does, I think the lesson that must prevail is that the battle is won but, if history is our guide, the useful idiots will soon regroup and a new fatuous campaign will soon be joined in the cause of ...insert example of identitarian lunacy... So, in answer to the earnest young man who demanded an explanation as to why I would sooner stick six inch nails in my ears than vote for Corbyn... 1) learn some history which predates the mid nineties 2) Corbyn, however personable, is a moral and intellectual cripple * I did try 'Conquestesque' but it looked silly

August 29th, 2015
5:08 AM
Another example of the ironies of our times. Who has the moral high ground anymore? Not the left, it seems.

Jimmy Sands
August 28th, 2015
8:08 PM
A powerful piece and hard to disagree with any of it save the lazy tone of despair. Anyone who shares this view but does not act on it needs to explain why they are ceding the field to Corbyn. Labour members who agree with this need to get stuck in. Non Labour members who feel this way need to join. It saddens me to see Nick talking about the party in the third person.

Christopher Burd
August 28th, 2015
3:08 PM
Corbyn: “The expansion of Nato into Poland and the Czech Republic has particularly increased tensions with Russia.” Assuming Corbyn said this prior to the Ukrainian crisis, this was just stating the obvious. Using it to point-and-sputter at Corbyn suggests a higher degree of cluelessness than we've come to expect from Nick Cohen.

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