The war decade, the Enlightenment armed, and 101 uses for a dead Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens was a well-known journalist, based in the US, and quite the bon vivant, or so I hear! He died last week. Perhaps some of you knew this already.
Dec 19, 2011
Christopher Hitchens was a well-known journalist, based in the US, and quite the bon vivant, or so I hear! He died last week. Perhaps some of you knew this already.
Christopher Hitchens was a well-known journalist, based in the US, and quite the bon vivant, or so I hear! He died last week. Perhaps some of you knew this already. For those returning from polar exploration or recovering from hysterical episodes of deaf-blindness, approximately 9000 articles await you on a man called the Hitch, usually by those who had never met him, or met him once at the dry-cleaners. They fall into three clear divisions: the British pallbearers, the American cousins, and what Tom Lehrer might have called his temporary allies on the Left, and his traditional allies on the Right.
For the Right, who were pleased to welcome him in the post-9/11 — and particularly the post-Iraq quagmire years — he was manna from the heaven in which he didn’t believe; an atheist willing to argue for the superiority and Right of the West, an (initially) fervent pro-Palestinian willing to denounce a great deal of anti-Zionism, and eager, in his final years, to toy with his vestigial and recently discovered Jewish ancestry.
For Americans in general, he was the man who came from 1980s England, a place awash with booze and wasted promise, a place where he was on the lee side of serious drinking, to Reagan-era America, where the cultural elite had traded away the hip flask and the early death, for eight decades of gym and mineral water. Consequently he became legend, the man whose mild working-drinking habits — a bottle of wine over the course of an afternoon at the keyboard, as described in the memoir Hitch-22 — made him a sort of Neal Cassady of the DC beltway, who did what others wished to but did not dare. He was in that sense resident alien, mascot, holy fool — his Britishness allowed him to stand as a symbol of what most knew journalism was ceasing to be, as lifestyle, PR, USA Today, and the 24-hour news cycle took over the process.
As the great radical liberal tradition foundered in the delusional national self-regard of Reaganism, and the job became 1500 words on CBS’s new sitcoms or a crazy new trend called aerobics, the arrival of a mildly alcoholic British-establishment Trotskyist was akin to the alien arrival scene in The Day The Earth Stood Still. For the British scene he had departed — an Oxbridge set who had come down to London at the beginning of the ’70s — he was both exemplar and standing reproof.
Hitchens himself was a more cartoonish version of James Fenton, around whom the group appears to have coalesced. Serious poet, serious political activist, and a war correspondent of extraordinary bravery and not a little luck, the man who introduced the Portsmouth naval commander’s son to wider possibilities, politically and personally.
The wider group around them — a study in declension as exact as any Latin verb table — became the principle group of the new London intelligentsia, unquestionably talented in matters of art and the art of self-promotion. It’s the reason you read not only Martin Amis but about Martin Amis’ teeth; about what Hampstead novelist Ian McEwan thinks about geopolitics; about how Julian Barnes fell out with Martin Amis, around the time of his teeth; and about how Clive James knew Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was the one that got away, a move that was the making of him, and of the group he left, who became thereby, a cradle of genius, and not just another bunch of middling novelists, lunching themselves into old age and Sohoitis.
The Guardian has featured the London Hitchens, The Times and National Review the Hitchens of the Right, and Slate, Hithens’ last-home for a weekly column, has published pretty much an entire issue of anecdotes, which can only be compared to a medieval chapbook collecting stories of people meeting and being healed by this or that saint. The degree of adulation and commemoration is beyond anything reasonably required, another example of that new phenomenon, cyber-grief. With all this welter of memorabilia around, there is no point refelting upon Hitchens separate to the uses he is being put. To paraphrase the poet whose work was essential to his unquestionably compelling style, he has become his acquirers. What did they get from him in life, and now need of him in death, that can come from nowhere else?
To answer that, you have to go the last of those with a claim to him, the Left. They have faced the dilemma enunciated by another stylistic influence, the poet Philip Larkin, that of being unable to say words “at once both true and kind/or not untrue and not unkind”. In Counterpunch Alexander Cockburn is the most scathing, his brother Patrick more generous, his former junior comrade and now Socialist Workers Party eminence grise Alex Callinicos, coolly analytical, while in Gawker, John Cook has made a case for the prosecution.
For all one question is uppermost — was Hitchens always the man he ended up as, the liberal imperialist, standing atop history, as atop a burning tank and shouting “go”? Or was he someone actively corrupted by the blandishments of power, and the desire to be part of it, the marvellous reverse metamorphosis, as your correspondent noted some years ago, whereby a butterfly becomes a slug? Or can he be taken at his word — that, following the collapse of a global working–class movement (“which I miss very much”), he simply transferred revolutionary determination, the desire to find a historical subject capable of making real irreversible change, to the American imperium, ranged against religious fundamentalism, and “fascist” dictatorships.
The long answer would take a book, very little of it about the man himself. The short answer is that Hitchens’ general course was dictated by the third of these, a commitment to a dialectical radicalism, but through the medium of the second, a fatal need not finally for fame, celebrity or esteem, but for consequence, to be part of something where one could see the results. In that respect means undermined ends, and made the man’s final decades a study in the grotesque; he began it popping up, bearded, hungover, on cable news, denouncing whatever recent depredation Bill Clinton had committed, whether in the Gulf of Persia, or the mouth of an intern with impeccable poise.
He ended it bald, bleached and sinister, having devoted tens of thousands of words to the urging on of more death, more death, and, in counterposing his own life to that of religious faith, becoming an able recruiting sergeant for God. In the spirit of the dialectic, he wanted to help turn history on its head; the process ended up turning him, in every conceivable way, inside out.
For though Hitchens went further than anyone along a certain trajectory, and did it with more gusto and bullshit than anyone else, it is the movement not the man that matters. Hitchens would not have been who he was without Trotskyism, and the specific variant of it in which he became politically schooled — and nor would the contemporary world. He is one example among many of a bizarre process by which the revolutionary Left, having lost the big battle over the nature of the economic system in the 20th century, nevertheless commands much of the political process, but from both sides of the spectrum. To understand Hitchens, and the final decade he was part of, you have to understand the political current he was from, and the particular man and party, Tony Cliff and the International Socialists.
Of all the Trotskyist political groupings that developed in the ’50s and ’60s, the most visible and enduring has been the IS (in the UK it became the Socialist Workers Party in the 1970s). Formed in the 1950s in London by Tony Cliff, a stateless Jew born Ygael Gluckstein, in the British Palestinian mandate, the IS was a response to a debate raging through Trotskyist groups, as to the nature of the USSR — was it a “degenerated workers state”, defensible only in the last instance or a more promising “bureaucratic collectivist” one?
Cliff took a third position — the USSR was “state capitalist”, a giant enterprise within a world capitalist economy, and no more deserving of defence than any other capitalist state. The formula was simpler than anything else on offer to socialists who could not support the USSR, but it was also made extraordinary demands on potential followers, for nothing less than global revolution was acceptable, and new regimes — though they might be anti-imperialist — were not Marxist, whether that be the addled Utopian socialism of Mao, or the tropicana Stalinism-lite of Castro.Like all Trotskyists of the time, Cliff stood against all emerging forms of “new leftism”, from civilisation critiques of people such as Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, to Third Worldist guerillaism of Guevara, etc, and insisted that the revolutionary force remained the Western industrial working class, of whose 30 million British members he had by the early 1960s recruited almost 250. Cliff was not unduly disturbed by this; among his contributions was to bring the hard dialectical thinking of Hegel back into Trotskyism, and thereby to understand that history proceeds by reversals, polarity jumps, things becoming their opposite, etc. Cliff’s demanding commitment to a political ethic un-nourished by success awaited a social class for whom such idealism was a real, material practice — and he found it when the first generation of students came through the postwar UK’s massively expanded higher-education system.
As the social upheavals of the ’60s reached tumult, those student activists who sought a structured and grounded expression of radical hopes found that the IS’s commitment to political analysis from abstract principles was a “natural” fit with their work, the study of abstract laws in logic, science, etc. From that point on, the IS became overwhelmingly the party we still know today, the dictatorship of the philosophatariat, engaged in outreach to a proletariat who were distant even then, and in some ways wholly imaginary today.
Despite its relatively small numbers, the IS would play a vital role in the class political struggles of the early 1970s, and develop some bases in workplaces and unions — at one point in that time, it was publishing about 20 weekly magazines aimed at specific sectors of the workforce, Radical Teacher, Steelworker, etc, in a context in which mass strike action by a (far from Marxist) trade union movement made a socialist transformation a real possibility.
It was in this context that Christopher Hitchens and hundreds of others found a focus — Oxbridge students who would otherwise have been mildly leftish aesthetes found themselves wholly made-over by a theory and a party that made hard thinking the centre of how history is made. The late Paul Foot, an SWP member to his death (even as he remained associated with the decidedly problematic Private Eye) spoke for many in his obituary of the party’s founder when he said that Tony Cliff “saved me and thousands of others from a life of careerism, dilettantism and compromise”.
Subsequent generations would wonder how people such as Hitchens, having won, through natural talent, hard work and the public, i.e. private, school, a place among the dreaming spires of Oxford, could spend their days standing on an upturned milk crate in the winter dawn, talking through a megaphone to arriving car factory workers who did not particularly want to hear it.
The answer of course is that if you really believe the dialectic, if you believe that history can be got right, then the upturned milk crate is the literal centre of the world, history on milk stack. Where else would you be? The belief was sufficient to see a whole cohort through to the mid-’70s, by which time the IS/SWP was a party of the student class, something it has remained ever since. When, following the arrival and departure of the brief moment of radical possibility in 1973-74, it coruscated magnificently.
The stalwarts would follow Cliff from existence as a group, to that of full-fledged party, which had become increasingly willing to mingle with new social movements in a strategy either far-seeing or opportunistic, depending on your perspective, and achieving substantial political heft over the decades, from doing the lion’s share of seeing off the British National Front in the ’70s, and organising the massive Stop the War coalition in the “zeroes”. But also, an oppositional group would depart, around a split based initially on a dispute as to whether the West was suffering a falling rate of profit or not — both more radical in their Communism, and more circumspect in their forecast of future possibilities. That group would become the Revolutionary Communist Party, and eventually the “Spiked” group — and also Institute of Ideas, Sense About Science, and numerous others — retaining an anti-imperialist, pro-strike tradition, but also supplying pro-capitalist energy and ideas to a Western Right become exhausted and clueless.
The “third force” would be Hitchens and others, retaining a Marxism, a dialecticism, even as they moved towards individual careers in the metropoli of two continents. What was common to all those who had been formed by Cliff’s party was an incessant search for the dialectical point, for the place to make a stand in such a way as would make things happen. That point could even be found, or especially so, at the very opposite of where one currently was. Once you look for such movements, a lot of the politics of the past 50 years makes a lot more sense.
Hitchens is merely one of the most visible, talented and tormented of that political diaspora. What appears to be an expression of utter individualism is simply a result of the fact that these people abandoned socialist party politics for reasons enunciated by another of element in Hitchens’ mix, G.K. Chesterton — radical left politics was not tried and found wanting, it was found difficult and not tried. Those who want a detailed account of his particular formation can find it in said hagiographies or his readable but overrated memoir. It is not without significance. His father was a WW2 naval commander — a job requiring more will, cool and courage (including the courage to risk the lives of others) than just about any occupation in human history — his mother a manic depressive (by nature or driven to it by being a Portsmouth officer’s wife), ending her life by her own hand in a Greek hotel room, having run away with a declasse chancer.
Thumbnail psychoanalysis thus gets Hitchens pretty easily — his father was the locus of will, duty and the law, making his life in a war that combined a fight for national survival with a struggle against radical evil, the ego as a battleship, iron-hulled and relentless, his mother an ID displaced by the ego’s solidity, all inchoate passion and energy. You try integrating that in a lifetime. No wonder he drank. No wonder he sought a projection of power — a lethal, endlessly bloody struggle of the enlightenment against superstition — that would somehow combine the meaning of both the Bolshevik triumph and what the British know as, simply, the War.
So in the end it was that fatal combination — a keen intelligence, a deep belief in the dialectic, and the need for a struggle that would integrate, that shot him to fame as a polemicist, and destroyed him as a moral and rational political animal. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s he continued to identify as a man of the Left, with a weekly column in The Nation — to remember which is as if one remembered that Archbishop Jensen spent a couple of years playing bass with Custard. He was an early exponent of what would be later called the “Euston Manifesto” position — far earlier than the mix of New Labour wonks and Provisional IRA sympathisers who would draft the thing in the mid-2000s — arguing that wars by parliamentary states against right-wing dictatorships, were to be supported. He opposed the Gulf War, but by the mid-’90s was clearly becoming antsy with what was left of the Left, as personified by Bill Clinton.
Clinton was far from the most mendacious professional politician on offer, but his premiership coincided with the West’s entry into the era of the post-political, when the epochal, titanic questions of the 20th century were but a memory of a memory, lost amid a bureaucratic neoliberalism opposed only by the type of composite social movement that had convinced Hitchens and many others in the ’70s that the gig was up for radical politics altogether. The ease with which Clinton took on the narcissistic, self-absorbed, therapeutic aspects of American life in the interregnum between the Berlin Wall and 9/11 sent Hitchens into a frenzy, which did mark Hitchens out as distinct, and set him on a clear trajectory.
In this passage, he abandoned any reticence he once had of working with elements of the hard Right, and seemed to willingly throw any sense of proportion or consistency. Nothing made this clearer than the various ways in which he portrayed the US attack on the Al-Shifa plant in Sudan in 1998. The US had destroyed this facility on claims of evidence that it was a chemical weapons factory run by a terrorism-supporting government; it soon became clear that it was a pharmaceutical plant, and that its erasure would mean extra death from disease for an unknown number of Sudanese.
At the time Hitchens saw this as a nihilist act by a President using flimsy information as a pretext for an attack that would distract the public from the Monica Lewinsky scandal — it was done because the President “needed to look presidential in a day” Hitchens argued. He accepted the estimate of a large death toll as part of the act’s true evil. But that was before 9/11, and the event prompted a sharp revision of its meaning. As he broke with others such as Noam Chomsky and John Pilger who had pointed to the lethal consequences of an ostensibly minor attack, Al-Shifa ceased to be an attack responsible for the death of thousands and became instead. By the early 2000s it was “ludicrous” to compare it to 9/11, and soon after that the whole claim of a wider circle of victims was exactly the sort of thing that “the Chomskys and [Norman] Finkelsteins” would point to, in their reflexive American self-hatred.
Following 9/11, many from the Left — Pamela Bone, Norm Geras, John Lloyd, David Aaronovitch — followed him on the final part of this journey. Most were less than willing to endorse Hitchens’ call for almost unlimited casualties, sheltering instead in the delusion that a contained, “smart” war was intrinsic to the process. You could call Hitchens’ position more honest than those; you could also say that it was more amoral, lacking even the tribute of hypocrisy.
Most people who were sufficiently smart and tutored to know what war does and is wanted nothing to do with the conflict. Those who supported the war from the Left were often as not clueless left-liberals with no real depth of thought or analysis (or analytical-tradition Marxists, which amounts to the same thing). Hitchens could break all the formidable firepower of the dialectical tradition to bear in arguing for the war, from its triumphal beginning and through its valley of death. It was in this period that he acquired the status that has earned him such accolades from all directions. His pronunciations were increasingly, violent, brutal, conscienceless towards the wounded and bereaved, simultaneously evasive and bloodthirsty without purpose. Hysteria it was, but it was ironclad hysteria, powering ahead, invulnerable, or projecting the appearance of such.
He knew, unquestionably knew, at some point, that he had f-cked up. By 2006 no one who was not openly realistically disdainful of Arabs, could look at Iraq and not feel that something distinctively new and appalling had occurred. The philosophy of just war, from any perspective, has many reasons why you don’t unleash it wantonly, and one of those is that any situation of violent disorder will be to to the profit of the worst — the ruthless, fanatical, criminal — rather than the best. The sectarian and random violence that resulted was not primarily about Sunni and Sh’ite; it was the violent against the innocent, the strong against the weak, the evil against the good. Hitchens’ glee at this extended chaos aligned him with the former in each pairing.
The ruthlessness that any revolutionary and Marxist feel they must be at least capable of summoning had long survived the politics that would have called for it; so in the end there was just the will, giving meaning through force, and attached to its most powerful expression, the US military and its political apparatus. People who wondered how Hitchens could support someone like George W. Bush did not understand the demands (and pleasures) of the dialectic; the idea that history was proceeding neither as tragedy, nor farce, but as children’s party clown show made one’s self-abasing duty to support it all the more meaningful. That’s how it looked from the inside, at least, one presumes. From the outside, well, one has to press Chesterton into service again — a man who believes in nothing, will believe in anything, even George W. Bush.
By any measure, he was gone after that. For anyone interested in serious politics, the period of his greatest public triumph — joining the neo-atheist push with God Is Not Great — is of no more than sociological interest. Doubtless the voice of the dialectic told him to thus widen the debate; and doubtless also, a voice within the voice said that if he changed the topic in as substantial a way as possible, he wouldn’t be faced with the weekly burden of justifying another 80 dead in a car bomb as part of freedom’s capricious march, and that he would be a favourite of progressives again.
The formula — “religion poisons everything” — was predictably simplistic, but it worked for the post-political crowd he had very little time for, whose only issues are euthanasia and same-s-x marriage. For a Marxist, it was a cop-out — no one of that persuasion of any moral seriousness can cast their eye from Stalinism to the Great Leap Forward to Cambodia and not think about the distinctly toxic effects of militant atheism. Neo-atheism served as cover not merely for licensed and “progressive” hatred of Islam — identical in form to the virulent anti-Semitism of Voltaire, and serving the same “enlightened” purpose — but also served as means of avoiding any reflection on the ahuman, a-theistic (ungrounded) prosecution of high-tech war, from pilotless drones to “smart” mines, and beyond. The book was a weapon in the struggle, but it was also a shield against further reflection, whether he knew it or not.
Hitchens died, mirabile dictu, on the day that US troops left Iraq, a clan-state with a parliamentary overlay, dominated by conservative Shi’ite groups and with shar’ia law written into its constitution, which he may or may not have regarded as a real advance in the long march to victory. Those looking for anecdotes or a record of his positive achievements — kick-starting the whole idea of trials for Henry Kissinger and his ilk, for example, which mean, inter alia, that Tony Blair now has serious restrictions on his travel — have no shortage of places to look.
This was the case against, not merely Hitchens, but the whole movement for which he became leader, personification and now symbol — those determined to enforce the progress of the “Enlightenment” armed. Hence the wall-to-wall obsequies. The Hitch has served his final purpose — as a way for the war party, at the end of a low and dishonest decade, to assure themselves that, no matter the bloody failures, they were men and women of militant reason, undissuaded by plebeian sentiment. Part of their mourning is the knowledge that no one could or would do what was required to defend the actions of a bizarre decade in which power was projected so wantonly, in pursuit of fantasy and without any consideration of how it might be paid for. That bill has now come due, the forces have taken over, that world is gone, and we can move on.