The term “the American Left” is as near to being meaningless or nonsensical as any term could really be in politics. It isn’t really a force in politics anymore. And it would do well to ask itself why that is.—Christopher Hitchens
If being interesting were the same as living a moral life, there would be no saintlier person than Christopher Hitchens. As a provocateur—and the gadfly-in-chief of the liberal society of his day—he was undeniably interesting. Like Walt Whitman, Hitchens celebrated his contradictions as inevitable in anyone with a complex and nuanced worldview. He also had a talent for saying things that pissed people off (for example, describing himself near the end of his life as a “very conservative Marxist”). From the 1970s to the 1990s, he was one of the most prominent socialist journalists in the world. His writings put to shame the idea that all leftists are puritanical theory-heads; his witty exposés of power—and of the various hypocrisies of the western world—garnered him the prominent political opponents he was undoubtedly delighted to have. One of these was his own brother, Peter Hitchens—a well-known conservative intellectual: the two of them crossed swords in several high-profile debates. Later, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he managed to piss off many of his former socialist comrades by engaging in high-profile denunciations of religion and by endorsing the Iraq War. This irritated progressives like Terry Eagleton, who saw Hitchens as simultaneously peddling superficial new atheism and justifying American imperialism. He delighted in pricking progressive sensibilities—for example by opining that women are not as funny as men. (Ironically, his take was itself rather mirthless—and it has not aged well, given the recent surge in talented female comedians). Yet Hitchens always maintained that he was committed to radical leftist politics. Perhaps he was trying to provoke into existence a more engaged (and less solemn) left.
Ben Burgis’ forthcoming book Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters is written in a style that one suspects Hitch would have admired: it is both a loving tribute, and a relentlessly unsentimental, frank account of what Burgis sees as Hitchens’ many character flaws and political missteps. Burgis makes a compelling case that Hitchens’ writings were indispensably helpful to the political left, even though he said things that many of them disliked—and sometimes because he said such things. Burgis sums up his own view of Hitchens with characteristic precision: “I hated parts of his work and loved most of the rest. He was always worth reading and watching and he was always worth thinking about and arguing with in your head. That’s very far from being a nothing.” Indeed, one might add, it is really quite something.
We Need to Talk About Christopher
Much of Burgis’ book is devoted to chronicling Hitchens’ writings, and he does this with quite a bit of personality—and not a little salt. Although Burgis came to praise Hitch, he isn’t afraid to bury him when needful. He argues that, especially after 2001, Hitchens delivered some frustratingly bad and vacuous takes—and he did so with a degree of wit and eloquence that, to Burgis’ annoyance, sometimes obscured their weaknesses. The examples that Burgis discusses at greatest length are Hitchens’ support for the Iraq War and his anti-theism. As Burgis points out, because Hitchens took these two positions at the same time, many critics have mistakenly assumed that his support for the war was motivated by an antipathy to Islam. This is especially true since the violent fundamentalism of Al Qaeda and the Taliban may have led him to criticise Islam even more harshly than he did other religions. By contrast, Burgis argues that Hitchens wrongheadedly saw the War on Terror as a secular crusade to make the world safe for comparably progressive liberal values. One should point out that, in his enthusiasm, Hitch ironically began to sound eerily similar to the kind of apologist for militaristic western imperialism that a younger Hitchens would have skewered with relish.
Burgis explains at length why he believes that Hitchens’ writing during this period was often unworthy of the man at his best. For example, he suggests that Hitchens seems out of his depth during his debate with William Lane Craig (on the topic of whether the Christian god exists). He argues that, while Hitchens was in his wheelhouse when debating the political question of whether religion is a force for good in the world, he was unable to meet Craig on equal rhetorical terms when the debate focused on the question of God’s existence. Burgis also notes that Hitchens seemed uncharacteristically naïve in his apparent assumption that western countries would be able to simply overthrow authoritarian regimes and replace them with workable democratic political systems. (I would add that this assumption was particularly surprising given Hitchens’ commitment, as a socialist, to historical materialism—one of the most important tenets of which is that society can’t be remade through short-term brute force, but only over long periods of time. Presumably, Hitchens failed to keep this tenet in mind—since otherwise it is hard to imagine that he would have entertained the notion that liberal democracy could sprout from the ashes of war.)
Why Hitchens Was an Important Writer
Nevertheless, Burgis goes on to argue, Hitchens’ support for the Iraq War shouldn’t cause us to forget that he was in the vanguard of many very honourable causes. He criticised conservative positions on myriad topics, including anti-labour-union policies and military interventions made in the name of anti-communism. He was also one of the first to recognise that the Reagan-Thatcher doctrine (neoliberalism at home and interventionist neoconservatism abroad) would be likely to cause increased economic inequality and growing popular frustration with democracy, as people found themselves increasingly unable to influence the politicians who were supposed to represent their interests. And he recognised that so-called third-way liberalism—promoted, for example, by Tony Blair and Bill and Hillary Clinton—was utterly insufficient to respond effectively to these changes. As Hitchens pointed out, these politicians tried to soften the blow with platitudes about tolerance and flexibility, while maintaining the inequitable status quo by promoting the idea that there are no better options—and while engaging in a foreign policy that could be just as ruthless as that of the neocons (one example is the Clinton administration’s bombing of the El Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan). Hitchens’ glee at pricking liberal-left platitudes in his later years may have stemmed in part from his conviction that they served only to obscure these politicians’ lack of imagination—and lack of any genuine commitment to changing things for the better.
Hitchens at his best certainly did not lack imagination or commitment to change. He spent most of his career—as Burgis emphasises—advocating fiercely for democracy, anti-imperialism and a humanistic form of democratic socialism. Hitchens describes in detail how capitalist systems tend to concentrate political and economic power in the hands of elites, and how this disempowers ordinary people and denies them resources that would enable them to flourish. He also argues persuasively on behalf of socialism. For example, Burgis takes Hitchens circa 1986 to be arguing that that “the liberation of the working class from capitalist domination is a necessary condition for as many people as possible being freed to the greatest extent possible to pursue their own life plans.” In this, Hitchens echoes the opinion of one of his heroes, George Orwell, who in The Road to Wigan Pier argues:
Everyone who uses his brain knows that Socialism, as a world system sincerely applied, is a way out. It would at least ensure us getting enough to eat even if it deprived us of everything else. Indeed, from one point of view, Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already. The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everyone; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions, seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.
Hitchens spent quite a bit of time exploring what form this alternative to capitalism might take, and how it might be instantiated without descending into totalitarian statism. Burgis does an admirable job of unpacking Hitchens’ evolving thoughts on these topics, but also suggests how Hitchens’ catchily expressed ideas could be philosophically and analytically enriched, extended and deepened—by drawing on the work of philosophers such as G. A. Cohen and John Rawls. In this, Burgis also builds upon his own previous engagement with these thinkers. Those interested in connecting Hitchens’ journalistic expression of radical politics with others’ theoretical work along the same lines will undoubtedly appreciate Burgis’ efforts in this regard.
When Hitchens passed away in 2011, it was unclear how he would be most vividly remembered. Would it be as the wit who wrote saucy pieces lampooning Mensa and other elements of snob culture? As the liberal hawk and atheist known for ferocious put downs of believers and sentimentalists? As the bohemian boozer who famously never entered a room without imparting to it a cloud of tobacco smoke and a whiff of whiskey? Or as the democratic socialist and Marxist who was admirably committed to anti-imperialism—and to replacing neoliberal capitalism with economic democracy and equality? Burgis makes a convincing case that this last Hitchens deserves to leave the strongest impression in our memories (though Hitch the endearingly convivial world-calibre drinker gets some love as well). Burgis’ book is a well written and often very funny testament to a complicated leftist who was never anything less than fascinating, even when that meant being infuriating to friend and foe alike. We shall not look upon his like again—and it is a testament to Hitch’s legacy that reading Burgis’ book deeply impresses on us how tragic that is.