Blood, Class, and Nostalgia, by Christopher Hitchens
Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies.
by Christopher Hitchens.
Farrar Straus Grioux. 398 pp. $22.95.
Christopher Hitchens, British-born, Oxford-educated, a columnist for the Nation and Washington editor of Harper’s, a widely published book reviewer, and a doer of countless other odd jobs, is a highly visible piece of leftist bric-a-brac in East Coast literary salons. On a given day his objects of scorn might include anybody in the democratic West—with the exception, always, of Gore Vidal—but with special spleen reserved for American culture and foreign policy, and, betimes, for Israel. These last targets have given him a certain currency in British Tory circles as well; he has also written for the idiosyncratically conservative London Spectator. He is a busy fellow indeed, and everywhere he bites, usually with condescension, the hand that feeds him.
In his public persona, Hitchens is thus a near-perfect example of what he claims to analyze, in over-larded and self-regarding language and at tedious length, in Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: British affectations of the second or third water, embraced, adopted, and carried on high by the Anglophiliac classes of the New World. As Hitchens himself puts it early on in his enterprise: “Not for nothing is hypocrisy known as an English vice.”
What is his enterprise? The ostensible aim of Blood, Class, and Nostalgia is to analyze the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, a term which entered currency with World War II and which now, amid the dramatic reorganization of Europe, is rapidly losing its luster. But that is really only the starting point of Hitchens’s ambitions. His real purpose is to construct a proof, organized in genealogical form, of the global existence of American imperialism: the eternal Marxist equivalent of the proof for the existence of God. But in this case there is the added fillip that in Hitchens’s argument the transformation of the United States from sturdy revolutionary republic to global hegemon was not a homegrown phenomenon but almost entirely a matter of British inspiration.
The fillip is important, for reasons that Hitchens takes pains to make unclear. The British did truly and unapologetically rule an empire, and the terminology and ambition that Hitchens wishes so fervently to attach to the rise of American postwar power are historically of British patent. Binding the fact of American world influence to an image of British tutelage is thus the necessary condition for making his claims of American imperialism stick. In a rare moment of candor, however, Hitchens admits that what he is striving to uncover is “metaphorical truth”—by which he seems to mean the substitution of figures of speech for reason and fact.
Most of Blood is, in short, a literary rather than a historical exercise, a major reason for its many incoherences, discontinuities, and lack of rigor. Hitchens is looking less to establish proofs than to assert resonances, overarching figurative themes that substitute for argument. He has a dense field to play upon: in the immense interweaving of personal, political, economic, cultural, and family ties between Britain and the United States, which has gone on without cease since the 17th century, Hitchens finds his conspiratorial cement. In particular, the allegedly manipulative relationship between Britain’s ruling elite and America has been expressed in the cultivation of Anglophilia. “I know of no other country,” says Hitchens—ignoring the British Commonwealth—“that has such a great weakness for things that originate in England. . . .”
Hitchens finds one of the crux points of the “special relationship” in a remark made in 1943 by the future Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to Richard H. S. Crossman, later one of the great anti-Communist sachems of the British Labor party. “We, my dear Crossman,” said Macmillan, “are Greeks in this American Empire.” Macmillan later repeated the remark to his staff: “These Americans represent the new Roman Empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go.”
Hitchens pursues these twin themes, of seduction/instruction and the transfer of imperial power, across a selected swath of history, largely from the American Civil War onward. He dwells upon the long wooing of the United States, and of Theodore Roosevelt in particular, to the notion of Anglo-American global condominium. He expatiates upon the wave of 19th- and early 20th-century marriages that bound together the British aristocracy and the American plutocracy. And he credits Winston Churchill, yet another Anglo-American product, with pulling the United States into World War I by conspiring to put the Lusitania in the way of German torpedoes. (Hitchens finds the case for this “excellent.”) Churchill’s role in inveigling the U.S. into World War II goes without saying, while his unabashed imperialist views are, Hitchens assures us, what is behind the cult of reverence for him in the U.S.: he is “an ideal fetish object for American ‘hawks.’”
But Churchill is also an example of the seducer seduced: an imperialist who lived to see his global possessions and ambitions appropriated by ruthless Americans. And this is the final irony of Hitchens’s scenario, that in the post-World War II period, a U.S. “invaded repeatedly by English manners and English tastes” had turned the tables on its erstwhile tutor. Britain had “called in the New World to redress the balance of the Old, and then found that it was the New World doing the calling.”
To sum up this strange view: the rise of American power owes everything to British cultural and social manipulation, even when, in the end, it has all worked against the British interest. But herein Hitchens also finds some good news: like the power of Britain before it, the power of the United States too is declining as we enter a “coming polycentric century,” in tandem with the dilution of America’s Anglophiliac classes. It will now be a splendid thing, he muses, if “the United States decided to become less Roman, and the British decided to become more Greek, and both rediscovered republican virtues in a world without conquerors.”
What are we to make of this curious tissue of metaphoric assertions? Blood, Class, and Nostalgia is largely an effort at guilt by insinuation, a genre for which the author has considerable talent. But, studded throughout as it is with references to the “deep grammar” of the special relationship between Britain and the U.S., the book is also a heavyhanded effort to apply concepts of Marxist structuralism that first came into vogue among British leftists in the late 1960′s. Those ideas were largely inspired by the works of Louis Althusser, one of the grand theologians of the French Communist party, who, when he imagined “republican virtues,” undoubtedly dreamed of those that would be embedded in a future People’s Republic of France. It is tempting to think of Christopher Hitchens consigned to such an Althusserian place. Tempting, but impractical—so few hands to bite, fewer still to feed from.