How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment by Matt Johnson (2023). A review.
There has been a gaping void in our political and cultural landscape ever since Christopher Hitchens’ death in 2011. Almost no one can compare to Hitchens for sheer charisma, acidic wit, polemical fire, fluency, eloquence and knowledge of politics, history and literature. Hitchens was the premier intellectual within living memory. Neither esoteric scholar, tedious think tank wonk nor bloviating talking head, he excelled in style and substance in print and on screen. More than a decade after his death, he is still a cut above the mediocrities who currently populate public life.
Matt Johnson’s How Hitchens Can Save the Left is an engaging, spirited defence of Hitchens’ legacy—a legacy which, he argues, our moribund left could learn from. It attempts a comprehensive assessment of its subject’s oeuvre and an exploration of the subtleties of Hitchens’ steadfast principles and evolving worldview.
Johnson sees Hitchens as part of a tradition of “left-wing heretics,” like George Orwell and the French nouveaux philosophes, who were clear-eyed about the totalitarian threats to liberal civilisation from all directions, and whose criticisms of leftism were rooted in “authentic left-wing principles.” Above all else, for Johnson, Hitchens was a champion of universal human values and of the Enlightenment, a paragon of fearless intellectual independence at a time of “party mindedness”: a “heterodox thinker in an age of smelly orthodoxies,” who was realistic enough to recognise “unpleasant facts” and make painful trade-offs—as he did, for example, when he endorsed the use of US power to avert genocide in the Balkans, despite having been a ferocious critic of American military imperialism for decades. By contrast, the current left, Johnson argues, is in the grip of “sectarian and authoritarian impulses” and prefers “identitarianism and group rights over the individual” and “subjectivity and tribalism over objectivity and universalism.”
Drawing in painstaking detail from all facets of Hitchens’ prodigious output, Johnson cogently and accurately relates Hitchens’ thoughts on free speech, identity politics, radicalism, internationalism and military interventionism: subjects that shape so much of our contemporary politics. For Johnson, the current left is on the wrong side of all these debates.
If Hitchens had a signature cause, it was free speech. To paraphrase the man himself, free speech wasn’t simply what he did, but who he was. He labelled himself a “First Amendment absolutist”—alluding to a proud tradition of leftist agitation to expand the scope of free expression that ranges from Karl Marx’s eloquent pleas against press censorship, through the heavy presence of leftists in the ACLU and Eugene V. Debs’ dissension during the First World War to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Hitchens—more than anyone—restated the classic case for free speech as a conduit for enlightenment and as the most effective method civil society has for weeding out falsehood and arriving at truth.
The tightest contemporary constraints on free speech no longer stem from legal or state censorship—though those certainly still exist—but from what many people call cancel culture, which leads to, as Johnson puts it, “cultural and political taboos that prevent people from writing and saying what they really think.” This insidious form of censorship is the hardest kind to resist. No one wants to be persona non grata in their community or experience the isolation of being in a minority of one. Yet, free speech must include the right to tell one’s community that they are wrong. As Rosa Luxemburg—a heroine for Hitchens—stated, “The freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently.”
Hitchens also strongly opposed the left’s turn away from universalism—its most cherished value, which he believed gave it the “moral advantage” over the right—and towards identitarian thinking. Despite being in favour of reparations for black Americans—something that always startles admirers and haters alike—Hitchens always believed that opposition to racism should be founded on universalism, not on race consciousness or ‘strategic essentialism’. One shouldn’t accept, in Johnson’s words, “the idea that race, national origin, or any other superficial characteristic should give anyone a special platform in the public square.”
Hitchens’ unyielding opposition to identity politics stemmed from his Marxist background. Marxism holds that all divisions based on race and nation are man-made—and thus can be man-unmade. He drew inspiration from C. L. R. James, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph: secular black leftists, who held that racism could only be defeated through revolutionary proletarian politics that transformed society from the root upwards, thus eliminating the antagonisms that promote racial divisions.
Hitchens was one of the few journalists to be widely published in the mass-circulation Anglo-American press who had been immersed in the Marxist canon and, in particular, the universe of British Trotskyism. Amid the “new situation” created by the events of 9/11 in particular, he drew on the same insights and resources that his Marxist training had provided, in his sweeping critique of the left.
“When I first became a socialist,” he wrote in 2002, “the imperative of international solidarity was the essential if not defining thing, whether the cause was popular or not.” He was always opposed to totalitarianism. The Portuguese carnation revolution; the struggle against fascist dictatorship in Greece; the horrors caused by the military juntas that littered Latin America in the twentieth century; the wrongs of small, occupied nations like Cyprus, Kurdistan and Palestine; and the Stalinist Cold War regimes of Poland and Czechoslovakia were central to his politics in the 1970s and remained important reference points throughout his life. He did not simply offer solidarity from afar; he spent time in these countries and became close to their dissident, leftist and democratic forces.
These associations would influence some of his later views on interventionism. He supported the Falklands War, at a time when he was still firmly a socialist, because he (rightly) calculated that a British victory would provoke the collapse of the horrifying neo-fascist Argentine junta, a Cold War ally of the United States, as the incompetent and morally repugnant junta had embarked on the war in an attempt to salvage morale with a cheap military adventure. (Johnson takes a well-deserved swipe at journalist Richard Seymour, who conceded that Hitchens was “right in every sense” on the Falklands War, without bringing himself to admit that British involvement in the war itself was justified—since that would be to commit the cardinal leftist sin of admitting that, under certain conditions, military intervention—even the intervention of a western liberal capitalist power—can produce positive effects.) Where Seymour saw only the self-aggrandisement of imperialism, Hitchens saw the restoration of democracy in Argentina and the emancipation of his leftist comrades from the grip of fascist sadists and torturers.
The quarrels over humanitarian intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s foreshadowed Hitchens’ conflict with the left after 9/11. Johnson notes that the Balkan War marked the beginning of Hitchens’ transition from the “anti-imperialist” to the “anti-totalitarian” left and to his project of “building a radical internationalist politics as it actually exists.” Hitchens was angry with many of his comrades on the left, who failed to muster solidarity with Bosnia and Kosovo against the ethnocidal revanchism of a militant Greater Serbia because they feared “that such solidarity might be misconstrued as a demand for bombing or intervention”—fears that “paralysed the limited forces of internationalism altogether.”
As Spencer Leonard has pointed out, in the years following 9/11, Hitchens’ criticism “of what passes for the left resounded loudly on both sides of the Atlantic.” With his rhetorical guns blazing at the likes of Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Norman Finkelstein, Alexander Cockburn, Oliver Stone, Michael Moore and Naomi Klein, Hitchens drove the point home that the problem of “imperialism,” as the left understood it, had become obsolete. In the twenty-first century, the foes of American imperialism were in no sense the representatives of emancipation, nor would their victory produce desirable effects. The world had changed, Hitchens believed, but the left’s critique of the US had failed to evolve with it. The left had become misguided, stale and stagnant.
The left responded to the Balkan crisis and to 9/11 with an abstentionist stance that was incoherent at best and, at worst, reactionary. Many continue to take this position in the international crises that have defined the post-Cold war order: in the wars in Libya, Syria and more recently Ukraine, as Johnson points out. The comfortable old anti-imperialist script simply presents these so-called leftists with unresolvable dilemmas that are symptomatic of the left’s own impotence and decline.
Most of the current left still hold Hitchens in contempt, caricaturing him as an arrogant, soused chauvinist and warmonger—just another renegade addicted to punching left. But few of these critics have paid close attention to the specific form his divorce from the left took. To accuse Hitchens of apostasy or selling out is both misleading and lazy. His was a valid, authentic, even if inadequate, response to intractable circumstances and painful trade-offs that persist to this day.
Hitchens didn’t follow the usual pattern of callow young leftist turned crusty old reactionary, nor was he among the god-that-failed liberals, who renounced and atoned for all previous beliefs. In fact, he had no regrets about his revolutionary youth—aside from a qualm that he had been too soft on Robert Mugabe in the interest of ending colonial rule in Zimbabwe. To the day of his death, Hitchens maintained his opposition to Zionism and support for Palestinian self-determination, remained steadfast in his previous criticisms of American imperialism and regarded Leon Trotsky as a “heroic” figure. Though he no longer subscribed to socialism, he donned himself a “conservative Marxist,” since he still believed in the dialectic and the materialist conception of history.
The “conservative Marxism” that characterised Hitchens’ later years was really a retreat into “Painite liberalism”—to use Johnson’s designation. It retained elements of Marx in its understanding of capitalism as a dynamic, innovative force of creative destruction, a universalist force that facilitates cosmopolitan intercourse through free trade and the world market and prevents countries from retreating into mutual isolation.
As Johnson correctly notes, while Hitchens lampooned Francis Fukuyama’s thesis in The End of History, he agreed with its main premise: namely, that liberal democratic capitalism is the apogee of human development. Hitchens accepted this without enthusiasm. He was often melancholic about the disintegration of the revolutionary left, which had historically fought against the economic and social domination of labour by capital and for the freedom of the individual. For Hitchens, his loss of faith in the revolutionary left—in the viability of an internationalist working class movement and a socialist critique of capitalism—ached like a “missing limb.”
Once he was convinced that socialism had become obsolescent, Hitchens’ radicalism was channelled into “the fight to extend the concept of universal human rights and to match the globalisation of production by the globalisation of a common standard for justice and ethics.” That and the need to defend liberal civilisation against recrudescent reactionary authoritarianism, both nationalist and theocratic, inspired the later Hitchens. And the agent anointed by history to keep the flame of liberty alight was, for Hitchens, the United States.
The jour de gloire of this radical project was, of course, the Iraq war. Unlike many on the left, while I firmly disagree with Hitchens’ stance on the war, I respect it. I respect him for going against the leftist consensus, in standing up for his unbendable belief that overthrowing Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do, even when it became popular to be against the Iraq war, and that, by ousting Saddam, America would begin to rectify some of its past sordid policies in Iraq and the Middle East and finally put an end to the realpolitiking—the “offshore balancing” that took place during the Iran-Iraq war for instance—that had helped plunge Iraq into the crisis in the first place.
Hitchens often poked fun at the American left for being “conservative” and “status quo”—by contrast with the neoconservatives, who were the “most radical faction in American politics.” After all, historically, the left had not favoured “stability” in the Middle East but had been willing to risk revolution to emancipate the local populations and overturn the state systems that had oppressed them for so long. Even though they were right to oppose the Iraq war, the anti-war movement were right for the wrong reasons: they relied on incoherent arguments about national sovereignty and the supposed incompatibility of democracy with certain foreign cultures. Some even carried water for Saddam outright.
Hitchens had his blind spots. His wish for a replay of the bourgeois revolution in Mesopotamia, facilitated by Paul Wolfowitz and the 82nd Airborne, was quixotic and led to a bloodied catastrophe. And, while his new atheism was savagely correct about the absurdities and wickedness of religion, it was limited. He forgot that the criticism of religion should be only the beginning of the ruthless criticism to which we should subject all coercive systems, not its end.
Yet he was correct that Marxism, as the force of the proletariat, is now dead—or at least comatose. He was correct in his diagnosis of the current left—with their hostility to technology and globalisation and ambivalence about the legacy of the Enlightenment—as dogmatic and one-sided and therefore utterly undialectical and as conservative, even reactionary. He was prescient when he wrote that “instead of internationalism, we find among the Left now a sort of affectless, neutralist, smirking isolationism.” The force of this critique still holds regardless of his position on Iraq.
For Matt Johnson, the “Painite” Hitchens is an inspiration. Johnson is a partisan of muscular liberalism and Atlanticism. He views institutions like NATO and the European Union as part of a “system of alliances … that treat human rights and political development as the most reliable long-term contributions to security and stability.” Influenced by Steven Pinker’s Panglossian optimism, he eulogises the post-Cold-War world order for producing “the most peaceful and democratic era the world has ever experienced.” He seeks to preserve and extend this order against nationalist populists with their xenophobic isolationism.
Johnson is right that both positive and negative liberal freedoms have been extended to more people than ever before. Since the 1990s, the democracies of the west and of East Asia have enjoyed a historic decline in crime, especially in homicides. Neoliberal globalisation has made the world more intimately interconnected than ever and incorporated hundreds of millions of non-westerners into the world market, lifting many of them out of extreme poverty. Despite these instances of progress, however, I maintain that the contradictions of capitalism are yet unresolved. The antagonisms that create the conditions for war and crisis are still very much alive. To fulfil our full potential, we need to transcend bourgeois society. To echo the socialist Hitchens, “we are not living in the best of all possible worlds.” Capitalism is not history’s last word.
In his preface to Edmund Wilson’s exquisite history of the socialist movement, To the Finland Station (1940), Louis Menand expounds on what made Marxism such a profound idea for generations:
It said that … the individual performs a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a trajectory, and that modernity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. Historical change is not arbitrary. It is generated by class conflict; it is faithful to an inner logic; it points toward an end, which is the establishment of the classless society. Marxism was founded on an appeal for social justice, but … its deeper attraction was the discovery of … a meaning in which human beings might participate, in history itself.
It was this humanistic meaning of Marxism, its view of man as the protagonist in the exhilarating drama of world history that, I believe, captured Hitchens’ imagination in his youth and formed the “missing limb” that ached in his advanced years. When he describes the upheaval of 1968 as the “last flare-up and the last refulgence” of socialism “and not the beginning of a new wave,” he is registering both Marxism’s demise and the way in which it gives history meaning.
An early review of Johnson’s book in The Conversation claims that Hitchens isn’t likely to be remembered as a great essayist and will “likely fade from public consciousness.” I think this is wrong. Hitchens will remain in our consciousness for a very long time—not just because of his many admirers, but because the subjects he wrote and spoke about are enduring topics of discussion, which we will continue to argue about for a long time to come.
If we want there to be a reconstituted left, we should take our cue from Hitchens: “it is always the ideas of secularism, libertarianism, internationalism, and solidarity that stand in need of reaffirmation.” These principles may not be sufficient—but they are necessary. And that’s why Christopher Hitchens still matters.