In the 1940s, George Orwell wrote that “every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”
Today, many right across the political spectrum like to pick and choose from Orwell according to taste, stressing either the democratic, socialist or anti-totalitarian aspect of his work at the expense of the whole — the resulting “legacy” depending very much upon the political persuasion of who is doing the accounting.
Christopher Hitchens, the one-time darling of the left, in recent years uncomfortably skirted this same political dividing-line: at once attracting the scorn of former comrades for his alleged shuffle to the right, while in the process gathering a substantial number of followers whose admiration rested almost entirely on the premise of him having “come to his senses”.
The nature of Hitchens’s politics depended, in a similar fashion to Orwell’s, on who one was talking to.
Were Hitchens alone in rejecting the conventional left/liberal, post-9/11 perspective, his bravado and bluster would likely have been much less potent. (Hitchens’s politics were never about posture alone; but one should not underestimate the importance of showmanship to the Hitchens brand). As it happened, there were others on the left who viewed the attempt on the back of 9/11 to conflate John Ashcroft with Osama Bin Laden as crass moral equivalence; or as Orwell put it 70 years before, “the argument that half a loaf is no different from no bread at all”.
The problem with the notion that Hitchens, after 9/11, simply did the obligatory shuffle to the right, or as David Horowitz put it (underwhelmingly, considering his own political trajectory), had “second thoughts”, is that a substantial proportion of the left really did climb into bed with reaction during this period, and continues to do so whenever a group points AK47s in the direction of the United States.
This was not confined to the debased remnants of Stalinism, either. The editorial of the liberal-left New Statesman of 17 September, 2001, written by the then-editor Peter Wilby, appeared to blame Americans themselves for the 9/11 attacks — for “preferring George Bush to Al Gore and both to Ralph Nader”. A few weeks later, the Oxford Academic Mary Beard wrote approvingly in the London Review of Books about the “feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming”.
Hitchens’s understandable rejection of certain trends within conventional left politics, however, eventually led him down the blind alley of support for American adventurism — not unrelated, perhaps, to his increasing distance from the genuine struggles of the working class. In his essays on Iraq, as Jonathan Freedland put it, “the absence [of WMD was] deemed not to be evidence of absence but, on the contrary, evidence of the presence of WMDs in the immediate past.”
While it would be simplistic to put the shift in Hitchens’s politics in his later years down to a banal and clichéd shuffle to the right, it did begin to appear, if only via omission, that interventionism was not the only consensus Hitchens came to uncritically accept.
In a 2008 interview with Prospect magazine, Hitchens, a man who lived by then in comfortable surroundings in Washington, showed a thinly-veiled contempt for those whose lives were made bearable by the welfare state, dismissing it as “little more than Christian charity”.
Similarly, in an article for Slate in the aftermath of the London riots, Hitchens took the establishment line that the unrest was “sheer criminality” (as one Tweeter put it at the time — “yes, we know it is sheer criminality; the question is why are our youngsters sheer criminals?”). While much of the British left mobilised against the biggest cut in living standards in a generation, in the same article Hitchens glibly put “the cuts” in brackets and dismissed the term as an “all-purpose expression… used for all-purpose purposes”.
Going back to Orwell, in a reply dated 15 November 1943 to an invitation from the Duchess of Atholl to speak for the British League for European Freedom, Orwell rejected the invitation on the basis that he didn’t agree with their objectives. Acknowledging that what they said was “more truthful than the lying propaganda found in most of the press”, he added that he could “not associate himself with an essentially Conservative body”, that claimed to “defend democracy in Europe” but had “nothing to say about British imperialism”. His closing paragraph stated: “I belong to the left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence in this country.”
Hitchens, like many British journalists of his generation, undoubtedly spent much of his career in the shadow of Orwell.
He also perhaps spent a certain amount of it waiting for his very own Orwell moment — a moment where he could take on his own side in the way Orwell took on the left over the appeasement of Stalin. The problem for Hitchens, however, was that despite the bluster and fear-mongering (not to mention the genuinely repulsive politics of the Jihadi movement), Islamism was not Nazism or Stalinism; and Hitchens, however good his prose might have been, was no Orwell. In defending the gains of liberal democracy against its totalitarian enemies, Orwell never dumped his politics.
The most important message that Hitchens left behind is perhaps the most basic one: to think for one’s self. The reason large numbers of people admire Hitchens is the same reason so many detest him — attacking orthodoxy, whether of left or right, is never likely to win a person as many plaudits as clinging to the shore like a Daily Telegraph editorial.
We will all be worse off without the raffish demeanour, whiskey and cigarette in hand, belligerently arguing a point when others have long ago given up the ghost.
While many of the left were predictably quiet at the news of his passing, they will be the ones who will miss him the most, they just don’t yet know it.