He compares the strenuous act of historical forgetting involved in seeing Islamism as authentically "anti-imperialist" with the mental gymnastics demanded of Communists and their fellow-travellers in 1939 when the Nazi-Soviet pact was sealed. Cohen is interested in the psychology of such accommodations. "I quite deliberately went back in the book and looked at the 70s and the 30s, at communists in the 30s and Trotskyists in the 70s (who ended up taking money from Saddam). That gives you clues to mental patterns, how people argue themselves into such positions."
Yet, for all the historical parallels, Cohen insists that there is something distinctive about the latest ideological mutation on the left. For one thing, he says, "socialism as a practical political project is simply dead." What remains is the anti-imperialism of fools.
But isn’t this sort of thing restricted to a tiny and remote fringe of the far left? Cohen thinks not. "Taking a kick at the far left is good fun, but it certainly wouldn’t be worth writing a book about. The difficulty is that this attitude is so pervasive it’s hard to see how extraordinary it is. Because you’re no longer a socialist putting forward a programme, you don’t have to stand for anything. That’s why so many people read Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore – they don’t have to commit to anything. They just have to jeer."
Lit buffs should note that Jonathan Derbyshire - who wrote the profile - also has a good piece on the new Paris Review anthology.