Christopher Hitchens was an intellectual with an astonishing breadth and depth of knowledge of politics, literature, philosophy and culture—as well as a magnificent writer with a passion for the English language. He was also a captivating orator who spoke with fluency, panache and intellectual power, and a pugilistic debater unafraid to defend his opinions “against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time.”
Born in 1949, for most of his life Hitchens was a darling of the Anglo-American left. He opposed the Vietnam War, supported the civil unrest in France in 1968, and championed anti-colonial liberation movements across the world. As a teenager in 1967, he was recruited by the veteran Trotskyist Pete Sedgwick into an unorthodox, anti-Stalinist, Trotskyist group called International Socialists (UK), which advocated opposing communist as well as capitalist states. Although this group later evolved into the current—and awful—British Socialist Workers Party, Hitchens joined it during a much more intellectually dynamic period, when it was just as influenced by the early twentieth-century Marxist Rosa Luxemburg as by Leon Trotsky. He maintained throughout his life an intellectual kinship with some of its political views, particularly anti-Stalinist socialism (the belief that one could be a Marxist and still oppose the Soviet Union’s version of communism). He was influenced by prominent Marxist dissidents such as George Orwell, Hal Draper, Victor Serge, C. L. R. James, Sylvia Pankhurst and Max Shachtman. For decades, many leftists felt proud to count him among their ranks.
However, beginning in the 1990s, Hitchens gradually underwent a political metamorphosis. The events that seem to have ignited it include the fatwa issued in response to Salman Rushdie’s 1988 publication of The Satanic Verses, the fighting in the Balkans in the 1990s, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After 9/11, Hitchens took new positions: he supported the so-called wars for democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, and spoke out strongly against theism—especially Islamism—at a time when the left had become concerned with discrimination against Muslim minorities in western countries. In so doing, he became a villain to many leftists, including many of his former comrades and admirers.
Hitchens consistently denied that he had mutated into a neo-conservative—or indeed any kind of conservative, except perhaps “a conservative Marxist.” He maintained that he was still faithful to the revolutionary leftist principles of his youth—and that it was members of the left who had become conservative—even reactionary—because they were being soft on religious barbarism and complacent about the horrors of totalitarian regimes.
Ben Burgis has authored an assessment of Hitchens’ legacy—a slim book due out in January 2022: Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters (I have read a review copy). Burgis—a leftist—is what one might call a critical admirer of Hitchens. He writes in the book that Hitchens’ early work was a big influence on his education as a socialist, and that he agrees with “almost everything” that Hitchens wrote before 9/11 (the “important exceptions” being Hitchens’ support for the 1982 Falklands War and for the US military interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s, both early precursors to him championing liberal interventionism).
Burgis is less admiring of Hitchens’ later work, though he still expresses respect for it. (Describing Hitchens’ debating skill, Burgis refers to him affectionately as the “rhetorical equivalent of an MMA fighter.”) He shares Hitchens’ atheistic and materialist worldview. And he finds “compelling” in some respects Hitchens’ view that religion’s evil influence on world affairs has been underestimated. But he argues that Hitchens’ strident anti-theism is counterproductive—mainly because it unnecessarily alienates religious people who share secular leftists’ political goals and might otherwise be their allies. And he sees Hitchens’ unequivocal support for the US military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan as unconscionable. “The question that’s still worth asking isn’t about the merits of where he ended up,” Burgis writes, “It’s how the hell he could’ve ended up there?”
Burgis charts Hitchens’ incremental evolution—from flaming Marxist to an ally of neoconservatism—partly by describing how Hitchens’ debate positions changed over time. For instance, in a 1986 debate about how the media and academics were portraying events in the Middle East, Hitchens took an unambiguously radical-left position. And in another debate that year on the merits of capitalism versus socialism, he spoke in explicitly Marxist terms and defended the ideal of a future socialist society that will have shaken off the fetters of capitalism. But in the 1990s, Burgis argues, Hitchens’ political imagination “narrowed.” He notes that, while Hitchens makes “a few hand-wavey references to struggles to expand democracy waged by someone-or-other, he says almost nothing about the organized working class.” And he points out that, in a 2001 debate, Hitchens argued in favour of reparations for slavery, as a way of partly rectifying injustices dished out to black Americans. Burgis sees this as evidence that Hitchens had stopped thinking “strategically about how political change can emerge from the energies of people at the bottom of society.”
Burgis makes a similar point about Hitchens’ 2001 book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (which argues that Henry Kissinger should be tried for war crimes). He notes that Hitchens focuses on Kissinger as an individual, rather than placing him within a systematic critique of American imperialism as a whole. Burgis sees this as another illustration of how Hitchens had drifted away from revolutionary socialism and had started to believe that social transformation must be accomplished by working from the top down, rather than from the bottom up.
Another example that Burgis cites is Hitchens’ position in a 2009 debate on the Catholic Church. Hitchens rebuts the well-worn point that the Church’s philanthropy counts as a force for good in the world by arguing that the solution to poverty isn’t charity, but the “empowerment of women”—by which he means birth control and education. Burgis argues that an earlier Hitchens would have added that, though such measures are necessary, they are insufficient—and that only a transformation of the global economic order along Marxist lines has the potential to eliminate poverty.
Burgis is mostly fair and measured in his description of Hitchens’ political evolution. Unlike Richard Seymour, Burgis doesn’t express the bitterness and hatred that is usually directed at a perceived traitor to the cause. And, unlike Norman Finkelstein, Burgis doesn’t believe that Hitchens’ motive was “cashing in on earthly pleasures.” He sees Hitchens’ support for liberal interventionism as sincere and principled—comparing it to how, in the 1930s, the actor Paul Robeson came to support the Soviet Union out of a genuine belief that it carried the seeds of a future without oppression, exploitation and racism. Burgis argues that Hitchens’ support for America as a guarantor of democracy came from a similarly genuine belief in—to quote Hitchens’ hero Thomas Paine—“the cause of America as the cause of all mankind.”
Many of Hitchens’ leftist critics are puzzled by his political metamorphosis: he doesn’t fit the cliché of the callow young leftist who mutates into a crusty old conservative and renounces all previous beliefs. Hitchens continued to call himself a Marxist (in later years a “conservative Marxist”) until his dying day, and maintained many of his leftist stances: he criticised other aspects of American foreign policy, opposed Zionism, which he called a “silly, messianic, superstitious, nationalist idea” and supported Palestinian self-determination. And, as Burgis notes, Hitchens continued to express respect for Noam Chomsky’s early work, particularly his criticism of US support for the genocide in East Timor and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Burgis’ analysis is incomplete: he does not focus on explaining what caused Hitchens’ political evolution. And it’s important to recognise that Hitchens’ evolution was not merely personal. It was a reflection of how the political landscape changed between the 1960s and the early twenty-first century. For example, after the Cold War ended, the dominant political concerns were less about competing visions of how society should be organised and more about how to better manage the status quo.
In a 2006 New Yorker profile, Hitchens acknowledged that he saw himself as having become “post-ideological,” and that he accepted Francis Fukuyama’s conclusion that liberal democratic capitalism was the pinnacle of human political development. It seems that he wanted to continue being a radical but felt that the old socialism had become obsolete. He said that, after the 9/11 attacks, he realised that he had a new cause—to defend modern, secular civilisation against religious barbarism—which felt like “a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate,” and he owned that this thought had filled him with “exhilaration.” He wanted history to judge him as having been as clear-eyed about religious barbarism as Orwell had been about communism, fascism and imperialism.
Hitchens seems to have reasoned that, since the idea of a socialist alternative to capitalism had become obsolete, American power could replace the proletariat as the agent of revolution—or as the “unconscious tool of history,” as Marx once put it. Hitchens used to say that, out of all the revolutions that had forged the modern world, the American Revolution was the only one whose results still had the potential to change the world for the better. This would help explain why he wrote two (excellent) biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine in the 2000s—before he wrote God is Not Great. His radical project was now to defend and spread the gains of the 1776 revolution and the Enlightenment values it represented.
The Iraq war was meant to be the jour de gloire of this radical project. The revolution from above by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his vile, totalitarian Baathist regime was supposed to be the catalyst for a wave of democratisation across the Middle East. Iraq would become the model of a secular, multicultural democracy to counter the despots and theocrats that plague the region. As we now know, that project was a bloodied disaster. But I have always respected Hitchens’ stance. I respected him for believing that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was right, even when it was very popular to be against the Iraq war, and for his belief that, in ousting Saddam, America would begin to rectify some of its historically sordid policies in Iraq and the Middle East. Other advocates of the war, like the pompous Thomas Friedman, did a quick about face when the war went catastrophically wrong and pretended to have been against it all along. This kind of behaviour treats the grave question of the justness of war as a game. Hitchens, by contrast, always treated the subject with extreme seriousness. He believed that history would prove him right. In 2008, he declared that he was “convinced” that the “liberation of Iraq” will stand as “one of the greatest decisions of American statecraft” and that those who have defended it will be “proud” to have done so, “despite the failures, the disappointments and the incompetence.”
Hitchens was either courageous or delusional in this adamantine stance, but either way he deserves respect. He was the most eloquent champion of the Iraq war, making a case that was powerful, even compelling. It certainly unsettled my own comfortable dogma. I still strongly disagreed with his position, but the fact that he made me question whether I was against the Iraq war on its merits or whether I was just sheepishly following the then consensus is a testament to how formidable a thinker and rhetoritician he was.
Although Hitchens has been dead for a decade, his words will live on for a very long time. Much of what is not preserved in his books is archived in recordings of debates and talks that are available on YouTube. His body of work, produced over several decades, has already stood the test of time. He remains a model of how to mix style and substance with equal excellence. And he continues to stand out from the crowd of mediocrities who populate contemporary intellectual life. Whatever his flaws, Hitchens was a one of a kind. To borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, we shall not look upon his like again. He will continue to be missed.