In a 2005 debate with Christopher Hitchens, George Galloway facetiously called him an example of “the first ever metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug.” He was pointing to how Hitchens, a former socialist, had seemed to turn his back on former leftist comrades after 9/11, with his outspoken support of the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many leftists have portrayed Hitchens’ political trajectory as a Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation, but in fact it contained quite a bit more nuance. On examination, the changes in his political positions reveal some of the subtle tensions within leftism.
Hitchens’ supposed volte face has long incensed and stirred many leftists, who are evidently upset to have lost a skilful pen like his from their arsenal. His presumed betrayal is the focus of a 2013 book, Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, by the British writer Richard Seymour. The book includes some thoughtful critique, but is mostly dominated by tendentious complaints, exemplified by a passage in which Seymour charges Hitchens with plagiarism—but fails to produce any evidence.
Hitchens’ break with his former comrades came about because the 11 September terrorist attacks on America made certain subtle differences between the old and new left impossible to ignore and thus precipitated arguments on the left. Hitchens seems to have relished these arguments and to have experienced them as liberating him from old intellectual habits that had grown stale. The arguments on the left focused on whether and how Enlightenment-era aspirations of universalism could be achieved in a time of fragmented global politics, and on whether an empire—even an enlightened one like the US (equipped with what Hitchens called a “Thomas Paine arsenal”)—could ever be a force for good. Hitchens hoped it could: from a Marxist standpoint, he argued that the original European colonization of the Americas and the founding of the United States were progressive moments in history and that America’s revolution is the only one whose founding principles have stood the test of time.
In this, Hitchens was merely stating more clearly views he had long held. His embrace of the United States had begun at least as far back as 1992, when he launched into a squabble with his fellow leftists over whether Columbus Day ought to be celebrated. He made the progressive case for America in his 19 October column in the Nation:
As Marx wrote about India, the impact of a more developed society upon a culture (or a series of warring cultures, since there was no such nation as India before the British Empire) can spread aspects of modernity and enlightenment that outlive and transcend the conqueror. This isn’t always true; the British probably left Africa worse off than they found it, and they certainly retarded the whole life of Ireland. But it is sometimes unambiguously the case that a certain coincidence of ideas, technologies, population movements and politico-military victories leaves humanity on a slightly higher plane than it knew before. The transformation of part of the northern part of this continent into “America” inaugurated an early boundless epoch of opportunity and innovation, and thus deserves to be celebrated with great vim and gusto.
Although the historian David Stannard labelled this argument “quasi-Hitlerian,” it demonstrates that Hitchens had a solid Marxist education and his argument was informed by historical materialism. Indeed, Hitchens’ view of the American project seems to have been similar to that taken by Marx, who writes (in an 1864 letter to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the International Working Men’s Association): “From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class.” Lenin, too, praised the American Revolution in the highest terms, calling it “one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars.” And recently, the World Socialist Web Site—in objecting to the claim of the 1619 Project that the United States’ “true founding” should be dated from the moment when the first African slave touched American soil—has (somewhat surprisingly) echoed Hitchens’ appreciation of the value of America’s revolutionary achievements in 1776.
Such statements by prominent leftists show clearly that Hitchens was thinking and writing in a leftist intellectual tradition—albeit at a time when postmodernism and performative multiculturalism had influenced many of his leftist contemporaries to depart from that tradition and reflexively reject any conception of history that even faintly smelled of an Enlightenment telos.
Hitchens’ approbation of the American project was also undoubtedly influenced by his perspective as an immigrant to the United States. Immigrants, having experienced other cultures and chosen to make America their home, often have a keener appreciation of its achievements than native-born American leftists. This perhaps helps explain why, after 9/11, it was this immigrant leftist who took it upon himself to defend the United States—with its Enlightenment values—against what he saw as leftist apologia for Islamist fascists and thugs.
Thus, Hitchens’ appreciation for Enlightenment values was the fault line that precipitated his break with the modern left. Although this became clearer in his writings after 9/11, it was already discernible more than a decade earlier. When the supreme leader of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the assassination of Salman Rushdie in response to his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, Hitchens unflinchingly defended Rushdie’s right to free expression against the death warrant of a theocrat. In a 1989 essay in the London Review of Books, Hitchens heaps scorn on leftists who sympathise with Islamism: “Nothing is more ironic than to hear certain liberals and leftists identify Islam and the muezzin with the cry of the oppressed and with anti-imperialism.” Responding to an essay by John Berger, Hitchens acidly satirises Berger’s apologia for Khomeini, asking:
Was this, for a start, the same Ayatollah as the one who had gone pimping with Ronald Reagan and Oliver North in order to arm the colonial mercenaries in Nicaragua, who had been so eloquently opposed by Salman Rushdie in The Jaguar Smile? Or was it the other Ayatollah, the genial friend of Kurdistan? The ally of women in Persia? Who but an effete Westerner would point the finger at Khomeini’s use of children as mine-sweepers, or his insistence on the veil, or his pathology about the Baha’i and the Jews? At all costs, one must avoid judging les damnés de la terre by “our” standards. Incidentally, what are our standards?
All of Hitchens’ later politics is already contained in that 1989 statement. Note his scornful tone, his insistence on universal standards like women’s liberation and human rights, and the gift he has for telling queasy leftists straight up that they are betraying their own principles. And he goes on to criticise those on the western left who seem to think that but I was offended is a somehow a slam-dunk rejoinder to rational argument:
What thoughtful person has not felt the hurt expressed by the Jews over some performances of The Merchant of Venice? A whole anthology of black writing exists in the United States, protesting with quite unfeigned horror about the teaching of Huckleberry Finn in the schools, for the good and sufficient reason that the book employs the word “nigger” as natural. A mature and sensitive response to such tenderness of feeling and consciousness of historic wrong would run much like this, and could be uttered by a person of any race or religion … We know why you feel as you do, but—too bad. Your thinness of skin, however intelligible, will not be healed by the amputation of the literary and theatrical and musical canon. You just have to live with Shakespeare and Dickens and Twain and Wagner, mainly because they are artistically integral but also, as it happens, because they represent certain truths about human nature. Think for a second. Would prejudice diminish with the banning of Shylock? Concern for the emotions of others cannot license a category mistake on this scale, let alone an auto da fe. It was autos da fe, if you recall, that were the problem in the first place.
(In his repudiation of what might be called therapeutic book burning, Hitchens really was ahead of his time. Calls from the left for censorship have recently resurfaced again, and one of those leading the resistance to those calls, John McWhorter, has taken an approach reminiscent of Hitchens’: not only in his view that religion poisons politics, but also because he too has a particularly defiant way of talking to those squeamish leftists—or, as he calls them, “the elect.” McWhorter says that, since woke activists cannot be reasoned with, one simply has to tell them firmly “no”—and not mind the name-calling one will get in response. In effect, McWhorter invokes the same spirit with respect to the woke that Hitchens invoked with respect to people who are offended by Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock: sure, the canon may be hurtful, it may take its pound of flesh, but you had better grow up and deal with it.)
In the 1990s, Hitchens began arguing in favour of US or NATO intervention in Bosnia (and, later, in Kosovo)—to stop Slobodan Milošević from realizing his fever dream of an ethnically “pure” Greater Serbia. Hitchens also reassessed his initial opposition to the 1991 Gulf War—mainly, he said, because the no-fly-zone that the US had established in northern Iraq had prevented Saddam Hussein from butchering the Kurds. (Hitchens had never been genuinely anti-war. He had supported Thatcher’s 1982 Falklands War—on the ground that the Argentinian junta, which had attacked the British outposts there, was fascist. He had therefore long held positions that pitted him against the peace movement on the left and the ideas of leftists like Tariq Ali and George Galloway.)
In a later 2004 interview with Johann Hari, Hitchens reminisced about how he saw the intra-leftist arguments of those post-9/11 days:
It was a time when many people on the left were saying “Don’t intervene, we’ll only make things worse” or, “Don’t intervene, it might destabilise the region.” And I thought—destabilisation of fascist regimes is a good thing. Why should the left care about the stability of undemocratic regimes? Wasn’t it a good thing to destabilise the regime of General Franco? … That’s when I began to first find myself on the same side as the neocons. I was signing petitions in favour of action in Bosnia, and I would look down the list of names and I kept finding, there’s Richard Perle. There’s Paul Wolfowitz. That seemed interesting to me. These people were saying that we had to act. Before, I had avoided them like the plague, especially because of what they said about General Sharon and about Nicaragua. But nobody could say they were interested in oil in the Balkans, or in strategic needs, and the people who tried to say that—like Chomsky—looked ridiculous. So now I was interested.
The intellectual interest that Hitchens expressed in 1982—about finding himself sometimes in agreement with neocons—developed into a more engaged interest after 9/11, when, for example, he met with Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy secretary of defence at the time, to discuss the war against Saddam Hussein. When evaluating Hitchens’ political trajectory, one should not underestimate the immense psychological impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Unlike Noam Chomsky, who stayed focused on his longtime narrative about past crimes of the American empire, Hitchens seems to have been viscerally gripped by the fall of the twin towers, reinvigorated with hatred towards the enemies of civilization, and convinced that the new political landscape called for a reassessment of one’s political ideas.
Hitchens’ foreign policy views, though they shifted in the 1990s, were grounded in the same humanitarian and anti-fascist principles he had always espoused. And his cultural views always remained roughly the same. But the trajectory of his economic policy views over time is harder to assess. Economics was never of more than tangential interest to him. His embrace of the label “socialist” seems to have been mainly motivated by his support for international freedom struggles, rather than opposition to global capitalism. He tended to support the idea of free trade, and to suspect that the anti-globalisation movement was inspired by reactionary localist tendencies that were anathema to him as a committed internationalist. However, his increasingly outspoken embrace of the principles that had inspired the American Revolution seems to have prompted a renewed appraisal of capitalism. In a 2007 interview, he says that—despite capitalism’s corrosive tendencies—it is
reasserting itself as the only revolution. And it takes a Marxist to see it, sometimes … Joseph Schumpeter called it creative destruction: capitalism needs to go on devouring things and making things unstable and dangerous in order to keep on existing. Finding shorter and more scientific routes to production, productivity, demand, efficiency, discarding waste or competition, creating and then breaking up monopolies. It creates a destructive force. But anyone can recognize it as a revolution. It’s the only revolution in town.
Thus, Hitchens came to see capitalism much as he had come to see foreign policy: in both arenas, the core danger is stagnation.
The communist historian Eric Hobsbawm once remarked that “liberal capitalism and communism belonged to the same intellectual family. They were both children of the Enlightenment and spoke the same language.” Both, he suggested, aimed for the liberation of humanity—albeit by different means. Similarly, Hitchens traced socialism’s intellectual pedigree to its origins in Enlightenment philosophy. He saw Islamism, with its fascistic orientation, as an attack on Enlightenment values, and he saw democracy and secularism as the founding pillars of civilization, which had to be defended—and perhaps even exported. His attitude seemed to be, if the socialists don’t prove up to that task, screw them.
Despite Hitchens’ discovery, later in life, that he had new political allies, he remained a radical and a revolutionary by temperament. He accused the left of acting like a “status quo force,” and contrasted their views with the ideals of the American Revolution, which he felt were still a source of constructive social change. In a 2005 interview with Charlie Rose, he reflects—somewhat sentimentally—on how he came to realise that “the American Revolution still has some life and purpose and meat and muscle in it is, I think, a rather inspiring thing for someone of my age. I don’t think I’d have another chance to take part in a revolution.”
However, today—a decade after Hitchens’ passing—times have changed. The signs of American disintegration have become too stark to ignore, and the country’s will to act as a revolutionary force outside its borders has considerably diminished. One year after a Trumpist mob stormed the Capitol, we have to reconsider his appraisal of American dynamism. Had he lived longer, might the recent unravelling of the United States have made him more cynical about it? Would he have entered with relish into today’s political fights? Or would he, after all, have found a new revolution to hitch his wagon to?