Watching Christopher Hitchens
It is a good two decades since the journalist Christopher Hitchens first burst upon the awareness of the American media and intellectual class. Almost from the moment of his arrival in this country from Great Britain, he has been a howling success—far more so, indeed, than another British leftist, Alexander Cockburn, who came more or less at the same time and with whom he was formerly much paired.
Hitchens’s rapid advance is traceable to several factors. Unlike most journalists, a notoriously indolent race, he is remarkably industrious and prolific. In sharp contrast to his American counterparts, he is also widely read in literature, history, and politics. His polemical skills are considerable, and he wields a razor-sharp pen with dexterity.
And there are two other essential elements in Hitchens’s baggage. In his frequent television appearances, Hitchens is able to deploy a plummy English accent of the kind that causes garden-variety American liberals to swoon. Finally, he has been ready from the start to say perfectly outrageous, even obscene things about our society, our politics, and our foreign policy; this has earned him the bankable accolades “provocative” and “controversial,” code words in mediaspeak for sentiments that can be extreme or perverse but still recognizably on the continuum of what everybody in enlightened circles already thinks.
Lately, however, Hitchens seems to have been shifting ideological gears. The first sign was the publication several years ago of Nobody Left to Lie To, a distinctly unadmiring book on Bill and Hillary Clinton. This little tome, whose title tells all, appeared at the very moment that the impeachment hearings and the Monica Lewinsky affair were approaching their climax in Washington. Not a few of Hitchens’s admirers on the liberal Left felt that, all things considered, and regardless of whether he was right or wrong about the character of the President and Mrs. Clinton, this exercise was a bit, well, unhelpful. To compound the sin, Hitchens found himself entangled, through no fault of his own, in the investigation of the President by the special prosecutor when he revealed some inconvenient facts about Clinton’s hatchet-man Sidney Blumenthal. So deep was the hot water into which he fell among his leftist friends that the Washington Post was driven to query him about the effect of these events on his social life; was he, an interviewer wanted to know, still being invited to Georgetown dinner parties?
Since September 11, 2001, Hitchens has ventured into even more perilous territory. Thus, he supported the decision of the Bush administration to go into Afghanistan to uproot al Qaeda’s hold on that country. In his regular column in the Nation and elsewhere, Hitchens also confronted head-on the Left’s generally forgiving view of Islamic fundamentalism, coining the colorful term “Islamofascism” to characterize Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and other Islamist regimes and movements. More recently, in an article in the Washington Post (“So Long, Fellow Travelers”), he came out foursquare against the antiwar Left and in favor of a preemptive strike on Iraq. (One sample: “[T]he same people . . . who don’t think Saddam has any weapons of mass destruction will argue the next moment that if attacked he will unleash them with devastating effect. . . . Instead of internationalism, we find among the Left now a sort of affectless, neutralist, smirking isolationism.”) Perhaps not surprisingly, he announced at the same time that he would no longer be writing his column for the Nation.
What has happened to Hitchens, and why? He himself would maintain that he has not changed at all; it is others, his former comrades, who have strayed from the true principles of socialist internationalism. But this is at best only partly true.
Originally a Trotskyist, at some point in the 1980’s Hitchens drifted toward a kind of pink-tinged Euroneutralism cum knee-jerk anti-Americanism. There he seems to have stayed mired until only a year or so ago. His brother Peter, another erstwhile Trotskyist but now an outspoken Tory, recalls arguing with him on the relative merits of the Western and Communist systems at about the moment the Reagan administration was deploying SS-20 missiles in Europe to counter the Soviet threat. On that occasion, according to Peter, Christopher avowed fraternally that it was all the same to him “if the Red Army watered its horses in [the London suburb of] Hendon.”
As if to underscore his enduring left-wing and tiermondiste credentials, Hitchens has been steadily in the forefront of the hard Left’s crusade against Zionism and the state of Israel, working closely with the notorious Edward Said to give this low endeavor a patina of intellectual respectability (see their co-edited volume, Blaming the Victim, 1988). Over the years, as he himself recently put it, he has done “a good deal of marching and public speaking about Vietnam, Chile, South Africa, Palestine, and East Timor (and would do it all again).”
Some of his current writings, moreover, remain very much in the old mold. The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001) purports to reveal the criminal nature of the policies carried out by the American Secretary of State during the Nixon era. It includes two chapters on Chile—a subject on which I can claim some particular expertise—that are highly revealing of Hitchens’s polemical method. This consists of seizing upon one particular document or set of documents that seems damning, while wholly neglecting or passing over every relevant historical and political context. In the case of Chile, the simple fact of the matter is that, Kissinger or no Kissinger, Chile’s Marxist president Salvador Allende, who features as the martyred hero in Hitchens’s tale of American perfidy, would have peacefully finished out his term of office if he had not pushed his country into triple-digit inflation, wrought havoc with the rule of law, attempted to manipulate the armed forces, and allowed a free hand to squadrons of sinister “security” operatives from Cuba and East Germany. But one would never glean any of this from the skewed and reductive “history” offered up in The Trial of Henry Kissinger.
Hitchens’s slippery way with facts and contexts can be seen to even clearer effect in his latest book, Why Orwell Matters.1 George Orwell is of course one of the seminal intellectual and political figures of the 20th century, and for many the most important precursor of neoconservatism. He is best known for his novels Animal Farm and 1984, the first an evident satire on the Soviet Union, the second a chilling look at our possible future under a Soviet-style totalitarian state. But it is a lesser-known volume, Homage to Catalonia (1952), which most clearly charted his political journey.
As a man of the Left, Orwell had gone to Spain in 1937 to fight against the fascist regime of General Franco. He joined the POUM militia, a socialist formation with political links to Britain’s Independent Labor party. But his experiences in Spain afforded him a rare opportunity to observe Stalinism in action, as the Moscow-directed forces in the Spanish popular front were driven less to combat Franco than to liquidate other left-wing groups, often by means of the most brutal instrumentalities. Stunned by his near-inability, once he returned to Britain, to get a hearing in “progressive” circles for his account of events, Orwell became a major critic of leftist and, during World War II, pacifist humbug.
Thanks to his crystalline prose and his clear thinking about politics, Orwell’s prestige has only risen since his premature death in 1949. But so has the bifurcation in left-wing views of his legacy. The serious pro-Communist Left, particularly in Britain, continues to regard him as a turncoat: an ex-socialist who sold out to the establishment. More artful (or more cynical) persons in the academic and literary worlds, especially in the United States, have preferred to reinterpret Orwell as a prophet of globalization and American “empire.” I can recall a conference at Hofstra University several years ago at which a professor proclaimed with assurance that the totalitarian society depicted in 1984 was—the United States!
Which brings us back to Why Orwell Matters. The book amounts to a short tour through Orwell’s writings, organized around several key themes, the evident purpose of which is to identify Hitchens himself with certain ideas that informed the master’s work. There are in fact some broad similarities: Orwell was, and remained to his death, a self-avowed socialist and anti-Stalinist as well as an anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist. (The apparent anomaly of his anti-Zionism is a subject unto itself.) In each of these respects, Hitchens can be said to resemble him. What is far less clear, however, is whether Hitchens has ever been, like Orwell, an anti-Communist (as opposed to merely an anti-Stalinist), much less whether he was ever, again like Orwell, a firm opponent of the foreign policies of the Soviet Union and its various clients and satellites.
As for other points of contact: it is also true that Orwell harbored views on England, on feminism, and on the political culture of the literary Left that were then and would today be profoundly unacceptable to right-thinking (or rather left-thinking) people. Some of these, particularly Orwell’s attitude toward women and homosexuals, Hitchens clearly does not share. Reflecting his own evident change of mind about the U.S. since September 11, Hitchens also now regrets that Orwell lacked any real curiosity about American culture, and himself goes so far as to entertain the thought that “the American Revolution, with its promise of cosmopolitan democracy, is the only ‘model’ revolution humanity has left to it.”
But this exercise serves only to underline the difficulties that inevitably freight any attempt to compare the attitudes of two writers who are so far distant in time. Here again, context, Hitchens’s weak point, is crucial. Orwell was indeed a firm anti-imperialist. But he died before the vast majority of the colonial world had been freed from European domination. If he were alive today, would he be so confident in his views? To what extent are the values of Orwell’s (and Hitchens’s) “anti-imperialist” Left—to what degree, for that matter, is ordinary human decency—respected and honored in such post-imperialist, post-colonial nirvanas as Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Syria, Algeria, Pakistan, almost all of sub-Saharan Africa, or the precincts of the Palestinian Authority? How does the fate of their peoples today compare with the earlier period of European administration? Although Hitchens does manage to record his own disillusionment with Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, from this lone concession he does not draw any larger lesson about what has been wrought around the globe by a half-century of post-colonial praxis.
In his attempt to rescue Orwell from both the strictures of the Stalinoid Left and the tendency of American neoconservatives to claim him as a precursor, Hitchens is likewise only partially successful. It is perhaps telling that the chapter on the depredations of the Left is more than twice the size of the one on the alleged misappropriations of the Right. In the former, Hitchens takes on and dispatches such intellectual frauds as Raymond Williams (“the overrated doyen of cultural studies”) and the French Nobel laureate Claude Simon, as well as more recent leftist revisionists who have invented a “McCarthyite” Orwell based very loosely on the latter’s distaste for British fellow travelers of Soviet Communism. In the chapter on the Right, Hitchens’s entire argument against those who in his opinion have illegitimately dragooned Orwell into the ranks of conservatism may be summarized in this rather lame sentence: “George Orwell was conservative about many things, but not about politics.”
Well, yes, up to a point. But (context once more) “politics” itself is not about the same things—power, wealth, authority—it was about in the 1930’s and 40’s. Today, at least in the advanced industrial countries, politics has devolved into a competition over status, culture, and “lifestyle choices.” Where would Orwell, a “conservative about many things,” find himself in an America where key Senate races have been determined by candidates’ positions not on Social Security or tort reform or trade policy but on abortion? Where would Orwell, a firm English patriot, place himself in the controversy over the dissolution of the United Kingdom and its seemingly inevitable submergence into the European Union, a fictitious entity run by faceless, corrupt, overpaid, and unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels? As an outspoken defender of self-determination for colored peoples, what attitude would he take up on the subject of multiculturalism—which is to say, the abdication by European or American societies of the right to have newcomers respect their values, their languages, their civil and social pacts?
Evidently, Christopher Hitchens still believes in politics in the old sense. This may hint at the root of his current problem with so many former friends and allies with whose general orientation he still tends to identify himself. On the subject of the Clintons, for example, Hitchens could not help noticing, as a leftist of the older sort, that the President and his wife were impostors—opportunists who mouthed progressive slogans while striking whatever deals were necessary to advance their careers. The reason this argument fell flat in liberal circles is easy to explain. Since the Clintons were on the right side of a “woman’s right to choose,” on the right side of affirmative action, on the right side of bilingual education, and so forth down the line, the rest—including Clinton’s cozy relationship with shadier elements in the business and financial communities—simply did not matter.
Something similar could be said about the failure of Hitchens’s current position on Afghanistan and Iraq to resonate with the community of Nation readers. Here he is again in the Washington Post:
You might think that the Left could have a regime-change perspective of its own, based on solidarity with its comrades abroad. . . . When I first became a socialist, the imperative of international solidarity was the essential if not the defining thing, whether the cause was popular or risky or not. I haven’t seen an antiwar meeting all this year at which you could even guess at the existence of the Iraqi or Kurdish opposition to Saddam, an opposition that was fighting for “regime change” when both Republicans and Democrats were fawning over Baghdad as a profitable client and geopolitical ally. Not only does the “peace” movement ignore the anti-Saddam civilian opposition, it sends missions to console the Baathists in their isolation, and speaks of the invader of Kuwait and Iran and the butcher of Kurdistan as if he were a victim of George W. Bush the aggressor.
Very well said, indeed. To judge by the slogans and statements of the antiwar Left, however, this line is unlikely to take Hitchens very far, and that is because none of his former comrades and admirers seems particularly interested in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, or even, when push comes to shove, the fate of the Palestinian people. All they know, and all they need to know, is that they hate America and its supposed surrogate Israel. In such a situation, there is precious little dialogue to be teased out; not even an incendiary tract on Henry Kissinger is likely to redress the weights.
So where does that leave the “controversial” and “provocative” Hitchens? As George Orwell discovered, and many former leftists after him, the worst possible thing one can do is to speak the truth to one’s comrades. That is how many people ended up becoming neoconservatives in the first place—that, plus the hard work of thinking through the implications of each of their wonted attitudes and allegiances. But hard work of this kind is what still lies ahead of Hitchens, who himself has yet to face the truly troublesome points of consanguinity between the leftism he still espouses and the causes he now deplores—including the phenomenon he identifies by the ideologically slanted term Islamo-fascism—and who has sought to cover his confusion by piggybacking on the reputation of a much greater man. It will be interesting to watch the further unfolding, if there is to be one, of this work in progress.
1 Basic Books, 208 pp., $24.00.