In 2015, a new essay collection by Christopher Hitchens was released posthumously. The hardcover dust jacket of that collection, And Yet…, informs us that “Hitchens left at his death nearly 250,000 words of essays not yet published in book form.” And Yet… pushed that number down a little, and the publication last month of A Hitch in Time pushes it down even further (while still leaving plenty of material for future collections, which will surely be forthcoming).
A Hitch in Time brings together 20 of Hitchens’s finest contributions to the London Review of Books between 1983 and 2002, as well as some of his most piquant exchanges in its letters section, with an introduction by his Vanity Fair colleague James Wolcott. In a nice touch, the covers of the LRB issue from which each essay comes adorn the relevant pieces and the book begins and ends with prints of two communications from Hitchens to LRB’s co-founder and long-time editor Mary-Kay Wilmers (in fax form in 1983 and by email in 2002)—hinting, perhaps, at the contested story behind Hitchens’s departure from LRB.
The title is apposite: this book is something of a time capsule. Or, rather, it contains multiple time capsules, capturing Hitchens at various points in his evolution from revolutionary socialist to Enlightenment radical. Perhaps time capsule isn’t quite the right term, though. It implies that the book is a digging up of a stale, fixed past, when it is, in fact, incandescently alive.
Introducing his first essay collection, Prepared for the Worst, in 1988, Hitchens writes: “I suppose that, if this collection has a point, it is the desire of one individual to see the idea of confrontation kept alive.” And a blurb for his second essay collection, 1993’s For the Sake of Argument states that: “The test of this kind of book is for the reader to be able to open it anywhere and be drawn into the argument; it’s a test that Hitchens passes time and time again.” A Hitch in Time certainly keeps the idea of confrontation alive. It is full of delicious arguments, from an understated yet devastating review of a Tom Wolfe book (“in this collection of his favourite journalism the artifice and the foppery are not sufficient to conceal it [Wolfe’s shallow conservatism]”) to a forensic and devastating critique of Isaiah Berlin’s chameleonic politics (“his long service to a multiplicity of masters”), by way of a savage, indignant takedown of the crossdressing, hypocritical and still-venerated thug J. Edgar Hoover (“Hoover believed in niggers, kikes, wops, spies and fags to the end of his days. He never left the United States except for day-trips to Canada and Mexico. The only ‘foreigners’ to whom he showed any warmth at all were Mafiosi.”) and a coruscating exposé of Bill Clinton’s perfidy (“Clinton’s ambition became the same thing as his politics, and his approval ratings from the powers that be became the same thing as his electability.”). These essays transcend their time and draw the reader into the argument, however distant the details may seem (an essay on the Oklahoma bombing, for example, is prescient about the degeneration of the GOP into a conspiratorial, bigoted, ignorant cesspit). They are also a testament to a man who took ideas and politics and intellectual conflict seriously—and a reminder that such wide-ranging, erudite, committed voices are all too rare these days.
As Wolcott says in his introduction, this collection reminds us of the fierce and brilliant mind behind the (somewhat accurate but incomplete) caricature of Hitchens as a romantic bon vivant dishing out Hitchslaps to hapless opponents. He was a serious intellectual figure and it is a real treat that, on the tenth anniversary of his death, we have this magnificent collection to remind us of that fact.
Across these essays, some of the core Hitchensian values are on display: a love of literature and free speech and a commitment to universalism. In 1994 he writes of the attacks on Salman Rushdie that they represent the “acid test” of how much we value free speech: “In our time, those of us who unavoidably missed the opportunity to discover where we might have stood on earlier occasions of sheep-goat separation have now been offered the chance in a rather direct fashion.” In the same piece, he dismisses fatwa-prevaricators and apologists of all stripes and places himself alongside the reformers and dissidents of the Muslim world. After 9/11, he continued to do so, which demonstrates continuity with his earlier, socialist self (and this is a commitment that remains very relevant today).
Also present is the Hitchens wit, deployed, as so often, to provide a wider insight. In one essay, he begins by regaling us with his memory of being spanked by Margaret Thatcher before reviewing a reprint of a 1920s dominatrix manual, all in aid of revealing to us the pathologies of the Tories and the rottenness of the class system:
In the great rolling growl that used to sweep Tory Party Conferences at any mention of the birch, there could be detected a thwarted yearning to have everybody under control again: back in school, with its weird hierarchy of privileges and sufferings; back in the ranks of the regiment where a good colour sergeant could keep them in order; back in the workhouse and under the whip of the beadle. If this means a population that is somewhat infantilised and humiliated, well how else can you expect to get people to wait in the rain to see a royal princess break a bottle of cider over the bows of a nuclear submarine? And be glad, nay proud, to get soaked if she were late (‘Gawd bless yer, mam!’ as the Ealing Studios used to put it).
And in 1995, Hitchens writes about attending the Oscars: “Madonna, who was next to me on the dinner placement, cancelled at the last moment, as is her right. Perhaps she didn’t feel she had been well seated. Never mind.” This might just count as one of those great missed meetings of history. And this essay isn’t just a piece of celebrity fluff: Hitchens goes on to make some good points about why Hollywood is so bereft of originality.
Reading these essays, one gets a sense of Hitchens’s evolution. In 1991, still the anti-war socialist, he writes critically of the Gulf War (though he takes some time to castigate the left for speaking like right-wing isolationists; a theme he would warm to after 9/11). By 1998, however, we begin to see a shift. Reflecting on the great events of 1968, Hitchens describes an undercurrent in some of the arguments on the left in that year:
Somewhere in there, but waiting for an idiom in which to be unambivalently uttered, was an expression, or affirmation, of human and civil rights as a good thing in themselves. Easy enough, you say, and of course I’m with you all the way, but neither side in the Cold War had proved, or ever proved, capable of stating such a principle in practice.
As Matt Johnson argues elsewhere in this magazine: “One constant in Hitchens’s career was his orientation toward first principles—as he often explains: ‘It matters not what you think, but how you think.’ After realizing that international socialism was no longer a viable political movement, Hitchens began to emphasize these fundamental principles more explicitly.” As the twentieth century ended and the twenty-first century began, there was, as Johnson notes, a “radical reconception of human rights, international law and state sovereignty” underway among some. And Hitchens became one of the foremost champions of this new liberal interventionist radicalism. The above passage shows his move away from the left’s sectarian arguments and commitment to revolutionary socialism and towards a Paine-ite left defined by a radical Enlightenment universalism. After 9/11, he saw America as being the lynchpin of a democratic revolutionary order; for Hitchens, in Afghanistan and Iraq, America had finally “stated [these radical democratic] principles in practice.”
The last piece in A Hitch in Time, from 2002, shows us a Hitchens fully converted to this ideal. It is an essay on Pinochet’s Chile, but also a farewell to his former conception of the left. He lauds the socialist Chilean president Salvador Allende who, before his overthrow by the US-backed Pinochet, defended democracy, the freedom of the press and the rule of law even as all of his country’s institutions turned against him.
Tellingly, Hitchens wonders about an alternative history of the Falklands War: “How nice it might have been to see Prime Minister Michael Foot thanking President Salvador Allende for his help in bringing down the gang of torturers and kidnappers in Buenos Aires. But the left forbids itself such thoughts.” Here we have a nod to his earlier support for Thatcher’s war, and a confirmation that he now views the use of western power in defence of human rights and democracy as an admirable thing. He also reaffirms his commitment to the anti-authoritarian left: Allende is a heroic figure to him, but less as a socialist than as a democrat. Socialism might still be desirable in some ways, its historical achievements laudable and its spirit still capable of inspiring, but human rights and democracy are the most radical aims now.
If Allende had held on to power using the same methods as his fascist usurpers, Hitchens writes:
He might well have been morally justified. But the subsequent regime would have become a stupid people’s democracy and would have expired, or been overthrown, in discredit, within a decade or two. Allende chose instead to die for the values which García Márquez satirised, and it can safely be said that the long struggle of the Chilean people to depose and replace Pinochet did no dishonour to those principles, which are now being slowly and painfully internationalised.
While swathes of the left in 2002, according to Hitchens, had succumbed to “caudillismo” (they were silent or supportive when Fidel Castro complained about Pinochet’s arrest), and were impervious to arguments in favour of liberal interventionism on the side of revolution against tyranny, there was a finer tradition, which might be called the Allende leftist tradition. In this conception of the left, democracy and human rights were to be the focus of internationalism. Hitchens saw the globalisation of human rights and the rule of law as a noble and radical, if difficult to achieve, ambition.
On the core of Hitchensian thought, A Hitch in Time is fairly comprehensive. Some of his concerns are notable by their absence (aside from the Rushdie piece, there isn’t much on religion, and even there the focus is on free speech and the civil war within Islam rather than faith tout court), but his bedrock belief in freedom, his deep opposition to authoritarianism and totalitarianism, and his unflinching commitment to universalism shine throughout and the prose is, as ever, a dream.
A Hitch in Time, then, is a real treat. Prescient and combative, it does not feel dated in the slightest; indeed, it fulfils Hitchens’s oft–repeated desire to live up to Nadine Gordimer’s injunction to write posthumously, and proves Wolcott’s point that Hitchens was and is “uncontainable.” Ten years after the author’s death, this latest collection lives up to Hitchens’s purpose in his first one: to keep the idea of confrontation alive.