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What's Left?: How the Left Lost its Way: How Liberals Lost Their Way [Paperback]

Nick Cohen
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Oct 2007

From the much-loved, witty and excoriating voice of journalist Nick Cohen, a powerful and irreverent dissection of the agonies, idiocies and compromises of mainstream liberal thought.

Nick Cohen comes from the Left. While growing up, his mother would search the supermarket shelves for politically reputable citrus fruit and despair. When, at the age of 13, he found out that his kind and thoughtful English teacher voted Conservative, he nearly fell off his chair: 'To be good, you had to be on the Left.'

Today he's no less confused. When he looks around him, in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, he sees a community of Left-leaning liberals standing on their heads. Why is it that apologies for a militant Islam that stands for everything the liberal-Left is against come from a section of the Left? After the American and British wars in Bosnia and Kosovo against Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansers, why were men and women of the Left denying the existence of Serb concentration camps? Why is Palestine a cause for the liberal-Left, but not, for instance, China, the Sudan, Zimbabwe or North Korea? Why can't those who say they support the Palestinian cause tell you what type of Palestine they would like to see? After the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington why were you as likely to read that a sinister conspiracy of Jews controlled American or British foreign policy in a liberal literary journal as in a neo-Nazi rag? It's easy to know what the Left is fighting against – the evils of Bush and corporations – but what and, more to the point, who are they fighting for?

As he tours the follies of the Left, Nick Cohen asks us to reconsider what it means to be liberal in this confused and topsy-turvy time. With the angry satire of Swift, he reclaims the values of democracy and solidarity that united the movement against fascism, and asks: What's Left?

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What's Left?: How the Left Lost its Way: How Liberals Lost Their Way + You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom + Waiting for the Etonians: Reports from the Sickbed of Liberal England
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Product details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (1 Oct 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007229704
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007229703
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 3 x 20.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (47 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 25,442 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Nick Cohen was born in Stockport in 1961. He was educated at Altrincham Grammar School for Boys and Hertford College, Oxford. He began working as a journalist at the Sutton Coldfield News and moved on to the Birmingham Post & Mail, Independent and the Observer, where he has been a columnist since 1996.

He has published two collections of journalism, Cruel Britannia and Waiting for the Etonians. Pretty Straight Guys was a full length book on Britain in the Blair bubble. Two other full length books followed: What's Left? on reactionary strains in left-wing politics, and You Can't Read This Book on 21st century censorship.

Product Description


'A roaring polemic of outrage against the moral and political crisis of the liberal tradition. It is already one of the most discussed current affairs books of the new year…At the very least it forces anyone on the left to think carefully about where their movement has ended up in the modern world.' The Guardian

‘The book is a superbly sustained polemic.' Sunday Times

‘Exceptional and necessary…Do not feel you have to be a leftist or liberal to read it, because it engages with an argument that it crucial for all of us, and for our time.’ Christopher Hitchens, Sunday Times

‘This is a brave, honest and brilliant book. Every page has a provocative insight that makes you want to shake the author's hand or collar him for an argument. Who could ask for more?’ The Observer

'(He writes with) a genuine passion and human sympathy about people who have experienced appalling suffering.' Michael Burleigh, The Evening Standard

‘Undoubtedly controversial and provocative “What’s Left?” is, as its title suggests, a bleakly witty but perhaps dimly hopeful examination of what it means to be liberal in an age where the lines that have been drawn in the sand are in danger of being washed away.’ Waterstones Books Quarterly

‘One of the most powerful denunciations of the manner in which the Left has lost its way…Cohen's is a brave voice.'
Michael Gove, The Spectator

'Nick Cohen explains how contemporary liberals have lost their way with his usual polemical brio.' The Observer

'An essay of wide reference and great brilliance.' John Lloyd, Financial Times

Mail on Sunday

'This is the most honest, and most essential political book of the year.'

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Look at his critics! 3 May 2013
Cohen's book has stirred a hornets' nest and it is easy to see why. He honestly confesses to a Damascene conversion that caused him, Hitchens-like, to mitigate his old allegiance to the Socialist Left. He traces the Iraq war and its proponents and the discussion of it on the Left. And he castigates the Left, which he sees as largely animated by anti-Americanism. In some ways his is a one man 'The God That Failed' Dick Crossman's book. In that collection of essays writers who became disillusioned with Communism, such as Orwell, Silone and Gide, revealed their repudiations of Communism largely due to the horror at its Soviet style implementation as Marxism-Leninism and caused a firestorm of revulsion by their erstwhile comrades. Cohen's experience seems not unlike these writers in the 1950's in its Cold War context. Here against the background of fundamentalist Islam, Cohen finds the Left all too eager to shed its Enlightenment principles and seeing nothing odd about it. He does. This book too can give any liberal or other leftist pause and, as such, is worth your time if only to sharpen your case against.
What does NOT impress are 1 star reviews whose writers see fit to deride Cohen et al with insulting epithets without seeing how it reveals their own position; such tactics' cheapness seems to escape them. It is not clever and it certainly isn't funny; in fact it is counterproductive (calling Aronovitch 'Fatty' makes one wonder what they might call a Person of Colour. Shame on them).
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
I see that by the time of writing this that Nick Cohen's book has already received a fair amount of reviews- reviews which have depended largely on one's politics - so I'll try not to go too much in depth, but my do I have a lot to say about this book. You see Nick Cohen belongs in the same political camp on the left as his hero Christopher Hitchens, and to admit my bias I freely say that I also belong to this camp. It's one which is left, yet feels repulsed by much of the moral relativism and occidentalism that exists, the left which also has different camps in itself. There are of course the likes of Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali, radical intellectuals who almost solely focus on the west (if a problem isn't western related then it doesn't really matter). Tin pot dictators and Islamists killing people? Well only mention the bit where the west (I.e. the US and UK) supports them, and inflate it. It doesn't really help opposing the war in Vietnam or the war in Iraq I suppose to mention atrocities committed by the NVA or the Baathists. That's one group, who despite being somewhat dishonest, are at least worth reading in some areas. The second group have next to no moral credibility. This group includes the likes of George Galloway (whom Cohen criticises the most), a man who my naive and misguided younger days as a radical fifteen to sixteen year old I admired, so I can see the sway he can have over people. The problem is that they don't ignore the likes of those who commit atrocities which aren't western related, they support them provided they're anti-western, which often isn't just anti-imperialism or anti-capitalism (both decently honourable movements) but often anti-democracy, anti-secularism, against women, gays and minorities and totalitarians or zealots. Read more ›
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41 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Between Iraq and a hard place 7 April 2009
By HuddsOn
It could fairly be argued that what has always united the myriad groups, factions and parties comprised under the term "left-wing" is not so much their ideology as their self-image. They have always seen themselves as the champions of progress, the defenders of the poor and marginalised, the fearless pursuers of impartial justice. Their opponents are the bone-headed defenders of tradition and privilege who ensure the executioner's face is always well-hidden.

These typically liberal traits - an effortless moral superiority, instinctive support for the underdog, and opposition to the status quo - are undoubtedly very easy to ridicule. But they are not inherently malign or wicked. They only become dangerous when they are un-coupled from any sort of genuine altruism. This is what Cohen means when he says the Left has lost its way.

In Cohen's view, substantial segments of the left are in danger of allowing their movement to degenerate into a trite, self-indulgent counter-culture, in which an angry anti-establishment posturing conceals a lack of a positive political programme. Stop The War and Globalise Resistance, two of the most visibly popular left-wing campaigns, are defined by what they're against, not what they're for. Many people on the left are far too ready to draw an artificial moral equivalence between true tyrannies overseas and the very real but usually much milder moral failings of our own leaders and institutions. The author sets out to explore what's gone wrong and why.

Cohen is probably correct, at least from a British perspective, when he says that most liberals and socialists would find it quite difficult to imagine what a society significantly more left-wing than ours would look like at the present time.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A witty and personal polemic 30 Dec 2008
By Sarah A. Brown VINE VOICE
Many reviewers of this book - whether writing in newspapers or here on Amazon - seem to distort its arguments. I think (cross) leftists and (smug) rightists both want Cohen's conversion to be more dramatic than in fact it is. I'd skimmed through some of these reviews before reading "What's Left?" and was expecting his perspective to be close to that of, say, Melanie Phillips. But he hasn't abandoned the Left completely, only certain tendencies and views within the Left which he sees as sinister. He has been characterised by some reviewers as a fan of Bush and an unequivocal supporter of the second Iraq war. But this clearly isn't the position he sets out in "What's Left?"

The book is polemical and aimed at general readers, and clearly Cohen has had to shape and select his material in the most rhetorically effective way. Sometimes I felt the argument had been flattened, a middle position excluded. Yet on the whole I thought "What's Left?" was nuanced, thoughtful and consistently absorbing.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A good read for both left- and right-wingers
This book is actually written by a left-winger, so all those who think this is the Right attacking the Left are mistaken. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Seabird
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Writer, Relevent Subject
A great insight into the insane world of public politics. What's left? It's not a simple divide and never has been
Published 5 months ago by Duart
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book
Its a pretty good book, not totally awesome, but it gets you think about the values of the lefties today in western societies
Published 9 months ago by Michael Johansen
5.0 out of 5 stars A shattering view of the Left
Nick Cohen's rather dyspeptic disection of the slow disintegration and then political bankrupcy of the Left is a devestating critique of the British left wing and its attempt to... Read more
Published 12 months ago by W. Black
4.0 out of 5 stars Great book - anyone with an interest in contemporary British politics...
This is a great book. Cohen is one of the few writers who is willing to address the left's total failure to stand up to Islamism.
Published 17 months ago by patrice
5.0 out of 5 stars Penetrating and erudite analysis
I was thrilled to read this book, discovering there are writers who feel like me about the moral rottenness of the post-modern left. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Gary Selikow
5.0 out of 5 stars Phoney Liberal left.
I read this book a while ago now, but I keep thinking about it. For me, the overriding impression was of the lack of integrity, the revolting phoney sanctimonious posturing and the... Read more
Published on 8 Aug 2012 by Invisible Man
4.0 out of 5 stars Helps to dispel some myths
OK before I start my review I'd like to state that for the record that I am neither a staunch left or right wing voter, I voted Lib Dem at the last general election mainly because... Read more
Published on 26 Sep 2011 by Paul Stevens
4.0 out of 5 stars An important analysis of how the left has lost its way
There are some uncomfortable home truths in this book for anyone who considers themselves (like me!) to be from the left. Read more
Published on 8 Jun 2011 by Clare
5.0 out of 5 stars Who do you Believe?
I notice, when I search for "Nick Cohen What's Left review" the first results I get are negative reviews from the Guardian. Read more
Published on 26 April 2011 by R.Tristram
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