The Shifting Ground of Christopher Hitchens

In his account of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, British-Pakistani Journalist Tariq Ali, a former comrade and admirer of Christopher Hitchens, expressed his newfound disillusionment: “On 11 September 2001, a small group of terrorists crashed the planes they had hijacked into the Twin Towers of New York. Among the casualties, although unreported that week, was a middle-aged Nation columnist called Christopher Hitchens. He was never seen again.”[1] Ali’s sentiments epitomise a widely circulated opinion among the left that, in the years following the 9/11 attacks and subsequent War on Terror, journalist Christopher Hitchens abandoned his original views and became an apologist for the Bush administration. By the time of his death in 2011, Hitchens (or “Hitch”, as he was affectionately known) had earned status as one of the most admired intellectuals of his day. A distinguished figure on the left, and then the right, his opinions and polemics were notorious among both the public and the press alike. Nevertheless, his views were significantly more nuanced than many give him credit for and the often unpredictable stance he took on a wide number of issues leads one to question whether his journey from socialist to neoconservative is as plain as it first appears.

When Hitchens arrived at Oxford University in the 1960s, the counterculture mentality and the anti-establishment beliefs of some students there had reinvigorated interest in left-wing politics. Along with many other young people during the period, Hitchens was spurred into political involvement by the United States’ intervention in Vietnam, an event that led him to engage in protests, debates and demonstrations in an effort to become “more assertively Marxist and internationalist”.[2] The energetic presence that he managed to generate in student politics gave rise to participation in numerous talks and discussions, eventually prompting James Fenton to declare him “the second most famous person in Oxford”.[3] In one such discussion, Hitchens had a chance meeting with Peter Sedgwick, a socialist activist and author. The meeting proved to be a pivotal encounter in his life, as it was under Sedgwick’s tutorship and their ensuing correspondence that the young Hitchens was most crucially educated about the left and its influential figures. Applauding his struggle against Stalin in the 1920s, Hitchens became an avid admirer of Leon Trotsky and nurtured a similar appreciation for George Orwell. In hindsight, Hitchens would define this period as the beginning of his membership of the ‘hard’ left. It was a relationship that would last for three decades, remaining seductive in its comradeship and uncompromising opposition to fascism, yet it was a marriage not without flaws.

Although an enduring member of the International Socialists, Hitchens grew increasingly frustrated with the British left. After a brief period working as the foreign editor at the New Statesman, he eventually fell out with the magazine’s Anthony Howard and decided to leave Great Britain indefinitely to work in the United States. His choice to emigrate has been long discussed, with most accounts turning on America’s commitment to free expression and a secular constitution. In reality these seem only two of many elements that enticed Hitchens. He had come to despise the sentimentality of the left, comparing the Callaghan years to “Weimar without the sex”. In the hope of finding a new home for his ideas and work, he booked a flight to Washington and remained there for the rest of his life.[4] After his departure, the majority of Hitchens’ journalistic output was to be found in his column for The Nation, a well-known liberal magazine. During this period his most celebrated writing and activism was connected to leftist causes: his vicious attack on Henry Kissinger for America’s bombing of Cambodia, his persistent support for the abolition of the death penalty, and later his volunteering to be waterboarded in order to expose and condemn US torture methods.[5]

These opinions formed the bedrock of Hitchens’ career, yet even at this stage, a movement away from left-wing ideas could be detected. After the events surrounding Salman Rushdie’s fatwa (an event he was involved with on a personal level because of his friendship with Rushdie), he began to criticise the left for being soft on Islamic fascism and distanced himself by adopting the self-appointed title: “a recovering ex-Trotskyite”. Hitchens, like Rushdie, believed that the Quran was made by the hands of men and thus open to literary criticism and fictional recreation, but the reluctance from others on the left to defend him had a profound effect of Hitchens’ beliefs. For many, this is the crucial turning point in his political values. Nonetheless, this experience was insignificant in comparison to the catastrophe it anticipated. At the start of the new millennium one event would radically transform Hitchens’ views and the world as a whole – the terrorist attacks upon New York and Washington on September 11th 2001. In the aftermath of 9/11, his hatred for totalitarian and theocratic ideologies was manifested in unwavering support for Bush’s War on Terror. Even though this decision severed many of his old relationships with the left, the final decision to support the war was not as impulsive as some have suggested, for Hitchens had maintained an interest in Iraqi politics for a number of years and visited the country on many occasions. His reasons for supporting the war were founded principally on anti-totalitarian grounds and were outlined in a number of articles and television appearances; the most crucial reason was his persistent sympathy for the country’s Kurdish population. Hussein’s attempted genocide aroused fears that the country would become the stage for another tragedy on the scale of Rwanda, and caused Hitchens to believe that as great as the risks of democratisation might be, they were nothing when compared to the ongoing harms of dictatorial leadership under Saddam Hussein.

In order to support the invasion, Hitchens realised he would have to disassociate himself from his old beliefs; writing in his memoirs he asserts that “as the Iraq debate became more intense, it became suddenly obvious to me that I couldn’t any longer remain where I was on the political ‘spectrum’.”[6] He subsequently left his post at The Nation, an act that discontinued many of his old friendships and drastically altered his image on the left.  In the words of George Galloway, a long-standing rival of Hitchens, he was perceived by many to have become “a bloated drink-sodden former Trotskyist lunatic”. Yet it was not just Hitchens’ support for the war which confused many former allies – believing the war to be a good idea was easier to understand than his reasons for placing trust specifically in the Bush administration. Bush was a man who Hitchens had once described as “abnormally unintelligent” and “amazingly inarticulate”.[7]  Such a u-turn initially appears inexplicable, leading only to the conclusion that Hitchens’ perception of Bush was as drastically transformed by 9/11 as his other ideas had been.

Hitchens’ drift to the right was not as simple as some commentators have suggested. Ian McEwan, a lifelong friend of Hitchens, disagrees that there was ever a change of opinion: “way back when all of us were against the Falkland intervention by Mrs Thatcher, Christopher was the only person I knew who was so passionately for it.”[8] Hitchens supported the Falklands War on the grounds that it would end the Galtieri regime, a prediction which later came true, and possibly locates him as either an advocate of liberal interventionism or left-wing anti-totalitarianism. Yet these labels must be used with caution; as John Lennon once sang, relying on “this-ism, that-ism, ism, ism ism…” can make it difficult to scrutinise the uniquely complex beliefs of an individual.[9]  It is important to recognise that despite the classifications given to him by other writers and politicians, his support for the War on Terror was based on liberal principles. As he wrote in a column for The Nation published on 20 September 2001, “What they [the 9/11 attackers] abominate about ‘the west’, to put it in a phrase, is not what western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state.”

Considering his career in retrospect, it is easy to forgive Hitchens for his minor mistakes – and the whiskey and cigarettes – but his support for the war in Iraq is harder to accept for those still firmly positioned on the left. Ultimately, it is the fervour with which he fought for his ideas that still continues to yield admiration from so many journalists. My own admiration for Christopher Hitchens has led me to wonder what his opinions on current affairs would be now if he still lived. Would his response to the NSA’s surveillance be to defend it on anti-terrorist grounds or to fight against it as a totalitarian evil? Would he have supported the proposed intervention in Syria or learnt from the repercussions of Iraq? Unfortunately, we cannot know. At this point after his death it is perhaps less helpful to blankly criticise Hitchens; it is paramount for any aspiring left-wing activist or writer to seek to learn from his legacy, including its mistakes. We can continue to condemn his erroneous loyalty to the Bush administration and obstinate support for the War on Terror, but at the same time we can, and should, remember the successes of an intelligent and incredibly brave writer.

By Adam Leonard

 

[1]http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/the-staggers/2011/12/hitchens-cancer-war-religion?quicktabs_most_read=1

[2] Hitchens, Christopher (2010), Hitch –22 (Atlantic Books, Great Britain), p. 85

[3] ibid. p. 83, the first being Michael Rosen, another active student socialist and now prominent literary figure.

[4]http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2011/12/201112169397371919.html

[5] A video of this can still be found on the Vanity Fair website.

[6] Hitchens, Christopher (2010), Hitch –22, p. 307

[7]http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/16/christopher-hitchens-quotes-bons-mots

[8]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U4yvPSZN5ZQ

[9] From the lyrics to ‘Give Peace a Chance’released by the Plastic Ono Band in 1969.

Featured image: Surian Sooray, Flickr

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