A tedious yet recurring topic of conversation on the left revolves around who is and who is not ideologically pure. I say tedious because, ultimately, who really cares? Surely the more important question ought always to be: which argument is right and which is wrong?
If only politics were this rational. In reality most debate is conducted along largely tribal lines, with excessive amounts of time wasted trying to unmask possible turncoats and deviationists.
With this in mind one can imagine the self-admiration in some quarters when last week the journalist Nick Cohen penned a renuntiationem for the Spectator setting out why he was finally quitting the left. "I realise now what I should have known years ago," Cohen lamented. "The causes I most care about - secularism, freedom of speech, universal human rights - are not their [the left's] causes."
Actually one need not merely imagine the accusations of betrayal which greeted Cohen's resignation letter; the denunciations on social media began straight away. "He was always a Tory," declared one Corbynista. Another took to Twitter to claim that Nick was "one of those right-wing toads who parted with the left ages ago".
Yet Cohen's central argument is a difficult one to refute: the left has lost its way in recent years. A simple mental exercise proves Cohen's point. Imagine that a fanatic has just murdered a cartoonist for satirising his 'Prophet'. Who in all likelihood will pin at least some of the blame on the cartoonist for his own death and mutter irritably about the risks associated with 'punching down'? It will not be the Tory party or the right-wing press; it will be the left - or at least a sizeable portion of it.
As if to prove my point, as I write this sentence social media is ablaze with the news that left-wing students have banned Maryam Namazie, an Iranian Communist and militant atheist, from speaking at Warwick student union. The young and censorious fear that Namazie might hurt the delicate feelings of the religious. Whereas at one time the left would have relished the chance to make the religious squirm in their seats, today the sensibilities of the establishment – and religion is always a pillar of one establishment or another - are considered of greater importance than the supposedly 'western' notions of free expression and secularism.
Nick Cohen is saying goodbye to the left and, against this backdrop, it is not difficult to see why. Almost everywhere in the west the left has succumbed to a grotesque amalgamation of relativism and anti-imperialism in which 'we' are eternally guilty and 'our' values perpetually wrong. The left no longer believes in a socialist paradise and thus instead clings to the consolation prize of eternal damnation. When asked what is wrong with the world, the collective cry of much of the left is: 'we are'.
Yet I won't be handing in my resignation just yet. Not because I think Nick is wrong about the left's lack of sufficient interest in secularism, freedom of speech and universal human rights, but because there never was a halcyon golden age when things on the left were that much better. There have always been various and competing tendencies on the left, and during my lifetime – as well as that of my parents and grandparents – the dominant train of thought has been, on balance, a regressive one.
I am with comrade Cohen in feeling dismay when today's left lavishes praise on movements of the far-right like Hezbollah and Hamas. Yet not all that long ago the Hitler/Stalin pact had many on the left swimming in similarly fetid waters. Jeremy Corbyn's Stop the War Coalition may appear to be sinking to new lows with each passing day, but its predecessor the Peace Pledge Union spoke of Hitler's Holocaust in terms of the "very serious provocation which many Jews have given by their avarice and arrogance".
Cohen mentions George Orwell in his piece, and thus he ought to recognise the familial similarities of today's politics to the regressive politics Orwell spent so much of his life fighting. In a letter written in 1942, the 'progressive' poet D. S. Savage – the Lindsey German of his day but with a modicum of talent - informed George Orwell that Hitler required "not condemnation but understanding".
One need not go back that far to find similar examples of the useful idiocy that has once again crept into the mainstream. During the Cold War the Labour Party was stuffed with MPs and activists who claimed to oppose communism but who would never endorse any practical steps to fight it. Meanwhile, right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union high profile left-wing columnists were downplaying the crimes of Stalin and crowing smugly about "new Soviet data that records much lower gulag populations".
The left cannot be accused of abandoning its principles when the principles of so many on the left have always been rather shabby. Today's apologists for Islamism were yesterday's apologists for fascism and Stalinism.
The mainstream left is not, as Nick correctly points out, a reliable defender of secularism, freedom of speech and universal human rights. This is a lamentable state of affairs which ought to be fought tooth and claw. But there are other values equally worth defending – values which only the left is willing to defend, such as the right to a decent wage and a warm place to live, or a life that is not dependent on one's class or gender or race. One suspects it will not be Nick Cohen's new brethren at the Spectator who put themselves out to defend these principles.
And so despite the left's many – and serious – faults, I feel like paraphrasing the great anti-Stalinist Victor Serge and saying to Nick Cohen that, while the left may be carrying the germ of fanaticism and sectarianism, it contains many other germs too. And to judge the living man only by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse and which he may have carried in him since his birth – is that very sensible?