The trouble with Christopher Hitchens

Submitted by cathy n on 8 July, 2010 - 11:36 Author: Tom Unterrainer

By Tom Unterrainer

Any number of questions popped into my mind whilst reading ‘Hitch-22’ – Christopher Hitchens’ recently published memoir – but two in particular kept coming back.

The first: was Hitchens really ever ‘one of us’? The second: would it be easier to convince a Hitchens admirer or one of his mortally hostile ‘left wing’ critics of my politics? Why did these questions keep coming back?

There’s an enviable amount to admire in Hitchens’ journalistic and other written output; some of the positions he defends overlap with most rational socialists’ instinctual sympathies and when all is said and done, there are few public figures who take up the polemical cudgels with such entertainingly brutal effect.

But at the same time as being an outspoken critic of fascists old and new, a defender of minority national rights and unrelentingly hostile to religious mysticism of all types, Hitchens has been decisively wrong – and it seems to me, in this book at least, grossly disingenuous – on Bush Jnr, the invasion of Iraq and the ‘War on Terror’ more generally.

The gravity of this ‘wrongness’ should not, I believe, be confused with the political tragedies of others on the left who crossed the lines in one way or another. Whatever his literary talents, Hitchens is no Max Shachtman or one of the numerous but lesser known movement activists of old who ended up in ‘the wrong camp’. His political trajectory did not include a long period of organised activism – Hitchens was a student member of the SWP precursor organisation, the International Socialists – but rather a literary sojourn through a series of prestigious liberal publications.

In other respects though, his story does caricature the careers of some in the group of people known as the ‘New York Intellectuals’: people who went from outspoken support for Trotsky against the show trials and slander, socialist anti-Stalinism against the self-despoiling antics of the Lillian Hellman’s of this world, support for workers struggles and the plight of the oppressed and exploited to full-blown apology-mongering for the US during the heights of the Cold War.

Like many who sprang from or were influenced by the Trotskyist movement, these characters concluded – rightly – that the Stalinist regime was reactionary and socially backward as compared to the Western bourgeois democracies. They also believed that against the barbarity of Stalinism and the apparently imminent existential threat it posed, stood one relatively progressive force: American state and imperial power. This assurance in ‘relative progress’ – uncoupled from the socialist ‘baggage’ of their pasts – opened the door to a very different political world.

The turning point for Hitchens, as it was for a great many of us, seems to have been the events of September 11 2001. Those murderers – infused as they were with the poisonous nightmare of clerical-fascism – and those groups and individuals who helped organise the slaughter are the mortal enemies of us all. Where they or people like them rule or exercise influence you will find tyranny, oppression, murderous ‘policing’, torture and any number of similarities to the modus operandi of fascists and Stalinists alike.

From the obviously correct assertion that as against the murderers of 9/11 Western democracy is progressive, against the backdrop of expected future attacks by similarly minded killers and the rest, Hitchens and company threw their weight behind the drive to war: in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. We should be as clear on this as Hitchens is himself: throwing his weight behind the drive did not just mean mounting a media campaign but coordinating meetings, lobbying, glad-handing and schmoozing an already war-hungry administration.

This position, rather than demonstrating an uncoupling from a ‘socialist past’ is more an indication that his past – and any remaining – affinity with socialistic causes is a really rather shallow one.

If we compare Hitchens’ reaction with the response printed in Solidarity a few days after the attacks and we can see a contrast:

“In cold-bloodedness, the New York massacre even exceeds its models. We, the socialists, cannot bring back the dead, heal the wounded, or assuage the bereaved. What we can do is understand the conditions which gave rise to the atrocity; see how they can be changed…” (‘Against the barbarism of the New York Massacre. We fight for Socialism’, Solidarity, 14/11/01).

Not much here, I guess, that Hitchens would disagree with. The article then goes on to warn of the need to “…keep a clear critical understanding of the way that the US and other governments will respond.” How did we expect them to respond?

“The US government will respond to the New York massacre with bombing raids abroad and a clampdown at home. Its aim will be to make a show of retaliation and retribution. It will not and cannot mend the conditions which gave rise to this atrocity, conditions which the US government itself, capitalist and imperialist, has helped to shape. Probably ordinary working people who live in ‘terrorist’ states will be the victims.” (Ibid)

Where Hitchens invested his fury at the atrocities of 9/11 in generally unquestioning support for a right-wing, religion infused administration with a distinctly questionable democratic mandate, socialists – at least the ones who understood what actually happened that day in September – refused to dump their politics. Where Hitchens polemicised and organised around the idea that the US and her allies could bring democracy and stability to places like Iraq – in advance of any actual evidence and in the face of a rotten record elsewhere, a record the Hitchens himself has criticised in other places – socialists refused to invest their trust and political energies in any such force.

Where we raised the slogan “No to war, no to Saddam”, Hitchens draped himself in Cold War feathers: he became the sort of war mongering hawk that he would, as a younger man, have rightly eviscerated.

How did this happen? Was 9/11 really a Paul of Tarsus moment for Hitchens or just a quick and easy change of step? How did he go from a self-proclaimed ‘Marxist’ – in some sense or another – to a Stars-and-Stripes button-hole-badge sporting fully signed up Bush Republican? Could he really have ever been ‘one of us’?

Hitchens, probably unconsciously, provides some evidence for the prosecution on page 217 of ‘Hitch-22’. Whilst reminiscing over a trip to California and the visits he made to a number of picket lines of “very spirited” strikes, Hitchens recalls a meeting with Hal Draper (whom he contemptuously refers to as a “guru”). Here Hitchens professes a “faith in the revival of the working class” but seems a bit disappointed – if not dismissive – of what was exciting Draper at the time: “He was suitably contemptuous of the prevailing ‘left’ fashions and illusions. But there was work to be done down in the Salinas Valley where César Chávez was organizing the grape pickers and lettuce workers out of un-unionised peonage.”

From the absence of anecdotes about meetings with César Chávez – if Hitchens had actually met him, you can be sure that he’d tell us so in his book – we can assume that the politics of actually organising workers into an independent force didn’t have the allure of other prospects. This ‘evidence’ may seem a bit thin unless, of course, you yourself actually put independent working class politics at the core of other political judgements. So despite his one-time membership of the IS and one-time confidence in the working class, Hitchens was never part of the workers movement per se.

When the barbarian atrocities of 9/11 struck, Hitchens – by this time twenty years or more down the road from his meeting with Draper – had nowhere but the Bush administration to turn. As such, it is unsurprising that his account of the journey from liberal journalism to lobbying the Pentagon avoids a full reckoning with the sort of politics you might expect to bother a one-time socialist. He was never ‘one of us’.

What about the second question that bothered me so? We need to narrow down what an ‘admirer’ of Hitchens is. Let’s confine the definition to those who specifically agree with him on the question of the war. Would it be easier to convince the most foam-flecked kitsch-Trotskyist of third camp, independent working class socialism - that is, Trotskyism - or someone like Mark Daily.

The most moving section of ‘Hitch-22’ tells the story of Mark Daily and his death. Daily was “briefly a vegetarian and Green Party member because he couldn’t stand cruelty to animals or to the environment, a student who loudly defended Native American rights”, he was also someone who “challenged a MySpace neo-Nazi in an online debate in which the swastika-displaying antagonist finally admitted the he needed to rethink things.” Daily was also very briefly a soldier serving in Iraq, until he was killed on duty.

According to the Daily family’s account, Mark was inspired to join the US armed forces by Hitchens’ writings. He was convinced by Hitchens, convinced he was doing the right thing, that if he agreed with the war then he should join up himself. There’s something admirable in this impulse but it’s far out-shadowed by the tragedy that became of the impulse. Out-shadowed also by the fact that the energies and obvious – from his quoted writings at least - intelligence of someone like Daily could have far better served a different kind of impulse.

I’d like to think that if Daily had stumbled upon the Workers’ Liberty website or found a copy of the American journal New Politics (where Julius Jacobson eloquently and systematically wiped the floor with knee-jerk ‘anti-imperialists’ and liberal hawks alike) – still better that he’d met someone like Draper or any other third camp socialist – then things could be very different. No amount of effort on Hitchens’ part could convince anyone with a synaptic connection or two of the post-event symmetries of the occupation of Iraq and the war to defend the Spanish revolution from fascists. His efforts to compare the US armed forces to the international volunteers who flocked to Spain is embarrassingly disingenuous in the extreme – all the more so when dealing with such a death.

I think we could have convinced Daily. But what of the many hundreds if not thousands who responded and still respond to the events of 9/11 and the sequence of wars and invasions that followed with a concrete misunderstanding of the world?

Can we reach the “fuck the USA”, “destroy Israel”, “we are Hezbollah” quasi-socialists who fall into the arms of groups like the Socialist Workers Party – the offspring of Hitchen’s International Socialists – and either bunker down or drift off with time? Again, I think with a little effort we can. The evidence? I was one of them.

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