For almost half a millennium, political “true-believers” have gone through a painful process of attraction and then rejection of socialism, whether the idealistic Christian or social democratic types or the authoritarian statism of Lenin. The attraction was easily defined: men with fertile imaginations and an activist view of the world sought a remedy to its trials and tribulations, in this world rather than another as most religions offered. A French saying has it that if one is not a socialist at 20, he has no heart, but if he is still a socialist at 40, he has no head.
The personal histories of converts and rejections, particularly in the post-World War era, have been dramatic and made for popular accounts. In part, this was because during the series of tragic decisions by the democracies leading up to World War II, the Soviet Union and its Communism – however marred by Stalin’s atrocities – was seen as a principal defense against as brutal fascism. The alliance between the West and the Soviet Union in World War II which defeated Hitler came apart almost immediately in the postwar era when Moscow attempted to expand its vast empire to include eastern and central Europe.
The devotees of the Soviet Union, and one is shocked to go back and see how many and how important in Western intellectual life they were, fell away into anti-Communism, and most, gradually in many cases, began to reject the tenets of the left all together.
So it is with familiarity that we turn to the latest of these conversions presented in an article by Nick Cohen in a recent issue of the British opinion magazine The Spectator labeled “Why I’ve finally given up on the Left”. Cohen’s article is trenchant because it expresses on the one hand a certain naiveté but on the other is extremely topical with the sudden swerve of Britain’s Labor Party to the left with a new dedicated hard-line socialist leader.
As is the usual case, Cohen clings to his definition of being “a man of the left”. “ I come from a left-wing family, marched against Margaret Thatcher and was one of the first journalists to denounce New Labor’s embrace of corporate capitalism — and I don’t regret any of it, “ he tells us. “But slowly, too slowly I am ashamed to say, I began to notice that left-wing politics had turned rancid.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the Labor Party, he says, didn’t become leader only because his friends in the Trotskyist Socialist Workers party organized a Leninist coup. Nor was it the support of the rank and file of the trade union movement in support of labor, he argues..”He won with the hearty and freely given support of ‘decent’ Labor members,” he concludes.
:”In the 1790s,” Cohen writes, “George Canning described the typical English supporter of the French Revolution ‘as a friend of every country but his own’. Today’s Tories can, with justice, say the same about Corbyn. George Orwell wrote of the “English intellectual [who] would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God Save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box”. That came to mind on Tuesday when Corbyn declined to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ at the Battle of Britain remembrance service.”
Cohen says he knows now, in effect, what happened to him:
“There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people,” he admits.
“I realize now what I should have known years ago. The causes I most care about — secularism, freedom of speech, universal human rights — are not their causes. Whatever they pretend, when the crunch comes, they will always put sectarian unity first, and find reasons to be elsewhere,” he charges.
All true, all old stuff really. And we will be around, perhaps, when Cohen finally gets to the point where he will announce, however sheepishly, that he has joined us to become a good, old-fashioned conservative.