Christopher Hitchens Was Good Before He Was Bad
A new collection of early writings by Christopher Hitchens reveals the writer as a scourge of American imperialism who skewered Cold War hypocrisies in shining prose. But it also foreshadows Hitchens’s post-9/11 transformation into a neoconservative mascot.
While there are many memorable passages to be found in the recently published Christopher Hitchens collection A Hitch in Time, one of the most striking appears early in a piece originally published in the leadup to the first Gulf War. Lamenting the sorry state of the debate underway in Congress, Hitchens takes aim at partisans of Operation Desert Storm in what was then his typical fashion.
Another target of his polemic, however, is to be found in some of the war’s ostensibly peacenik opponents — who Hitchens charges with being diffident in their response to its hawks:
Except for a fistful of Trotskyists, all those attending the rally in Lafayette Park last weekend were complaining of the financial cost of the war and implying that the problems of the Middle East were none of their concern. I found myself reacting badly to the moral complacency of this. Given the history and extent of US engagement with the region, some regard for it seems obligatory for American citizens. However ill it may sound when proceeding from the lips of George Bush, internationalism has a clear advantage in rhetoric and principle over the language of America First.
In context, Hitchens’s remark was characteristically perceptive. As has frequently been the case since the end of the United States’ murderous enterprise in Vietnam, the thrust of mainstream opposition to innumerable imperial wars has generally conformed to the same morally paltry template he describes. If hawks draw from a worn arsenal of militarist cliches, doves tend to counter with flaccid appeals to pragmatism that are easily drowned out by the utopian slogans of those agitating for conflict. Many of the marches and demonstrations over Vietnam (which Hitchens himself saw up close as a young socialist) brimmed with insurgency and revolutionary ambition. Those whom the author found meekly decrying Desert Storm in Lafayette Park, on the other hand, seem to have mainly been worried about its potential costs and a handful of lesser trivialities. Hardly a rousing battle cry — and, as Hitchens describes it, one that was rhetorically ill-suited as a rejoinder to George H. W. Bush.
The same might be said about mainstream liberal opposition to the second invasion of Iraq just over a decade later. By that time, however, the author of the perceptive passage above was no longer available to offer a version of the same critique — at least not from the Left. In 2003, Hitchens could again be found skewering liberal opponents of the war. But as one of its most prominent apologists, he was now doing so in the capacity of zealous neoconservative convert and without any hint of despondency about the sometimes-pitiful nature of antiwar dissent. “Internationalism,” in the perverse usage of Bushes I and II, had become his own stock in trade.
Reading Hitchens’s essay on the Gulf War today, it can therefore be hard not to detect a subtle whiff of something acrid in the sentence, “However ill it may sound when proceeding from the lips of George Bush, internationalism has a clear advantage in rhetoric and principle over the language of America First.” Scratch the first thirteen words, and what remains begins to sound less like the Hitchens of 1991 and more like the Hitchens of 2003. Like much else in the collection, his prose is difficult to read without immediately thinking of what followed only a few years later.
Bringing together essays originally published in the London Review of Books between the early 1980s and the late 1990s, A Hitch in Time is easily the best Hitchens collection in print today. Head into your local Waterstones or Barnes and Noble and you’re almost certain to see copies of inferior anthologies like Arguably or And Yet . . . prominently displayed on the shelves. God Is Not Great, the book which made him into a household name, is similarly ubiquitous, while much of the best Hitchens writing has been consigned to book depositories and secondhand shops.
A Hitch in Time notwithstanding, it’s only through the latter that I’ve been able to find any of his essays from the 1970s or 1980s — many of which are now hard to come by. The tragedy, if you enjoy Hitchens at his best, is that he’s largely remembered for later work of lesser interest and lower quality. The socialist Hitchens, who once marched against the Vietnam War, polemicized against many a deserving target, and regularly churned out memorable and distinctive prose barely survives. In its place are now a series of pithy ripostes preserved on YouTube and formulaic debates about religion in which individual lines of scripture are blamed for authoritarian regimes and God is called a “celestial dictator.”
Alongside the recent excavation by Jacobin’s own Ben Burgis, A Hitch in Time is a welcome corrective — even if some of its most memorable flourishes read like indictments of Hitchens’s future self. The best, and longest, essay in the collection (“Moderation or Death”) is a 1998 review of Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Isaiah Berlin, of whom he writes:
Synthesis was Berlin’s especial gift. . . . Yet, in his work and in his life, syntheses were often eclectic agglomerations and his allegiances — transferred not so much to England as to the Anglo-American supranational “understanding” — frequently bore the stamp of realpolitik and, well, calculation. . . . Berlin, it seems, had a huge capacity for internal multitudes and for torrents of reference but, whoever he lit on or deployed, they turned out happily to confirm, in the first place, one another, and in the second place, whatever he was going to say anyway.
Over the course of roughly 13,000 words, Hitchens skewers Berlin as the ultimate middlebrow intellectual figure — a man whose gift was not originality but elegantly frivolous pastiche and whose assorted philosophical appeals to pluralism were more in the service of mystification than insight. Berlin, for Hitchens, drew from a rich lexicon of theoretical and literary sources partly because it could be useful to those in power, again applying a criticism that might easily be directed at himself a few years later:
In every instance given by Ignatieff, or known to me, from the Cold War through Algeria to Suez to Vietnam, Berlin strove to find a high liberal justification either for the status quo or for the immediate needs of the conservative authorities.
From engaging essays on Tom Wolfe (“Wolfe had the excellent idea, way back when, of being in the 1960s but not quite of them”) and J. Edgar Hoover to P. G. Wodehouse and police espionage, A Hitch in Time has much to commend it to anyone who enjoys Hitchens’s pre-Bush-era prose. Entered into evidence, however, it also arguably offers plenty of clues as to the sources of his eventual reactionary conversion.
Much as the author’s lament for the state of antiwar opposition in Lafayette Park took care to contrast it with Bush I’s more sonorous “internationalism,” Hitchens’s writing going back to the 1980s occasionally hints at a longing for ideological grandness and dynamism that is entirely abstract from his stated political identity — and a corresponding melancholy about the increasingly enervated nature of his own side. One obvious example is his writing on Thatcherism, of which he once suggested that “if [the Labour Party] could not revolutionize British society, then the task might well fall to the right.” In his excellent review of A Hitch in Time for Harper’s, Christian Lorentzen recently recalled another passage from one Hitchens 2000 column in the Nation that offered a world-weary endorsement of Ralph Nader: “If you care to know my politics,” Hitchens wrote, “I am an old socialist who is living fascinatedly through a period when only capitalism seems to be revolutionary.”
Given where their author ultimately ended up, sentences like these are an occasion to think about the psychological and emotional dimensions of political identity. If revolution is indeed a “task,” as a younger version of Hitchens rather evocatively put it, then it was one he and his comrades once had good reason to think they might live to see fulfilled. By the 1990s, however, this sense of transformative possibility had been safely consigned to the dustbin of history alongside even reformist alternatives to liberal capitalism. For a time, Hitchens’s left-wing allegiance could sustain itself through polemics against the likes of Bill Clinton, Mother Theresa, and Henry Kissinger. But lacking a compelling teleology to nourish its craving for epochal struggle and confrontation, he eventually sought them out elsewhere. Writing ahead of the one-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Hitchens himself appeared to admit as much:
In order to get my own emotions out of the way, I should say briefly that on that day I shared the general register of feeling, from disgust to rage, but was also aware of something that would not quite disclose itself. It only became fully evident quite late that evening. And to my surprise (and pleasure), it was exhilaration. I am not particularly a war lover, and on the occasions when I have seen warfare as a traveling writer, I have tended to shudder. But here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan. (Those are the ones I love, by the way.) On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.
In a sclerotic age lacking in deep foundation, the Manichean categories and heroic appeals of the Right can have a libidinal allure to those who yearn for transgression and rebellion. If he lived today, it’s hard not to think that Hitchens — whatever label he chose for himself — would be firmly anchored among the cadre of conservative contrarians who masquerade as freethinking skeptics while providing an officially nonaffiliated constituency for reaction. A Hitch in Time, in addition to reminding us of the great writer and stylist who once was, is therefore also an oblique warning about where the revolutionary impulse can end up when the alternatives that originally inspired it are thought to have disappeared.