Review: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens

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'Scathing' and 'satisfying' denunciation of a polemicist and turncoat

Richard Seymour's Unhitched, a slim and scathing denunciation of turncoat scoundrel Christopher Hitchens, is a thoroughly satisfying and politically important book by one of the few remaining great radical left journalists.  I have to hand it to Seymour -- this book was a cathartic read.  

When I was an undergraduate, trying to be a lefty journalist and immersing myself in the literature of the Left, I was largely politicized by an emerging pantheon of great writers and thinkers. They were people I wanted to meet, people I wanted to be. I am of that "layer" of those politicized in the late 90s and early 2000s.

 There was of course Chomsky and Said up at the top of the list, then of course Howard Zinn. But, standing above all else, there were those two Nation columnists, Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn.  In the last ten years we've lost all but one of the pantheon. When Zinn and Cockburn died, there was barely a peep. When Said died, there were certainly some tributes, but a lot more spite, including from Hitchens. But when Hitchens died, it seemed the world mourned. From the left to the right, people remembered a great "contrarian."

 The Hitch! He may have hated religion but he loved the surgical bombing of brown people. He may have ended his life with a paean to the workers' uprising in Wisconsin, but he also famously opposed abortion and was a critic of feminism. By golly, he attempted to fuse Tony Blair and Tony Cliff.

 As Seymour points out, Blair even sent a mourning tribute to him, as did his favorite U.S. president, the "revolutionary" George W. Bush. Hitchens had been a vocal supporter of what he called Bush's "bourgeois revolutions from above," that is to say, transforming the social and political relations of foreign countries through military domination that would be embarked upon by U.S. intervention in the Middle East.

How did Hitchens then break from this pantheon?  I recall when I really got into Hitchens, it was his denunciation of the Clintons, No One Left to Lie to, right around the time he put his old friend Sidney Blumenthal on a collision course with perjury charges. At the time, all that was apparent was Hitchens' righteous critique of Clinton breaking with even the most mild liberalism, his consolidation of neoliberal restructuring of social provisions, his absolute screw-up on the health care front, and his pursuit of a new imperialism. There were also funny bits of gossip, as Hitchens had known Clinton back in their Oxford days. Indeed, for many reasons, not the least of which is that Hitchens truly was a marvelous writer, this is a book worth reading -- though it is not clear how much of the substantive critique of Clinton's public policy came from Hitchens, as opposed to from Sam Husseini, a brilliant D.C.-based reporter who, like many if not most of his comrades, Hitchens ended up stabbing in the back and, initially, not properly crediting his work.

As Seymour points out, Hitchens' beef with the Clintons was largely personal, and somewhat disjointed and nearly sociopathic. Indeed, this all went back to when Clinton was first elected, with Hilary Clinton not showing up to one of Hitchens' dinner parties, as one journalist told Seymour. To be snubbed by the new elites was an affront to Hitchens. He became, in Alexander Cockburn's words, "Hitch the Snitch." After his close friend Blumenthal dropped a bit of gossip about Clinton's "friend with benefits" relationship with Monica Lewinsky, while stating publicly that the White House wasn't spreading such rumours, Hitchens testified before Ken Starr that his friend had been lying. No matter what one thinks about the Clintons, or those who allow themselves to be employed by the Clintons, the notion of ratting out a friend to a reactionary puritan prosecutor like Ken Starr, is not the makings of a decent human being, let alone a comrade of any sorts.

What Hitchens did not mention was his own support of Clinton's foreign policy in the Balkans -- in which he had already come to accept the U.S. as a force for good in the world, a progressive force sweeping away the forces of reaction. What followed is well known, and is, for a younger generation of readers, the Hitchens they knew. Immediately after the September 11 attacks, he spoke of caution, of not veering into overreaction, yet soon he was picking fights with anyone who dared question U.S. reaction or even contextualize the attacks as "Anti-American" or worse. His early smears of Noam Chomsky and many others allowed for the entry -- even into some quarters of the Left for a short time -- of talk of loyalty and patriotism.

Hitchens became the patron saint of what some came to call "The Decent Left," those who signed the "Euston Manifesto."  Seymour’s first book, The Liberal Defence of Murder, gives a history and analysis of this tendency, and is well worth the read.  But Hitchens went far beyond even the "decent left" in his calls for civilizational warfare, his shocking and even genocidal Islamophobia (stating that he refused to share a planet with this "enemy"), even, tragically, his disavowal of his early and stalwart anti-Zionism.

When things went wrong, he cloaked himself in the last refuge of a scoundrel -- religion, or rather opposition to it. Iraq would have gone well, said Hitchens in his final public persona as scourge of religion, if not for those meddling Muslims killing each other. Religion had "poisoned everything" alright, but Hitchens did not attempt to examine religion like a good Marxist, looking at it as a social relation, a product of a many different inter-related social forces. Instead, he had the perspective of an upper class 19th century rationalist -- and this was nothing new. Seymour unearthed some columns from the 1980s where Hitchens denounced progressive religious figures like the assassinated Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, among others. The condescension shown by Hitchens and his co-thinkers towards those of faith was as aggressively offensive as anything else he did.

As noted, Hitchens' break with his anti-Zionism was one of his last great acts of apostasy, that is to say, betrayal of a faith, whether political or religious. He had after all co-edited Blaming the Victims with Edward Said, a longtime friend and someone who once held a powerful intellectual and fraternal influence over Hitchens. Right as Said was dying, Hitchens took it upon himself to write a very wrong-headed and offensive, even personal, criticism of Said's Orientalism, a review that appeared not weeks after Said passed away. This move was what one journalist described to Seymour as Hitchens' final personal act of transformation, his cutting of ties with those upon  whose shoulders he climbed. It was one that incensed even people who had already lost faith in him. Going all the way back to his brief time as an active Leftist, he had a tendency to slander former friends.

Unhitched is especially interesting to those of us with some familiarity with 20th century Left history, with juicy quotes from Hitchens' former comrades, including Tariq Ali, Alex Callinicos and the late Chris Harman. It's unsurprising that Hitchens wrote a wrong-headed review of a Perry Anderson book. By most accounts, while a talented orator and pleasant company, Hitchens never really took his involvement in revolutionary socialism all that seriously, by one account moving on as it was a hindrance to his rising in the world of journalism.

To outward appearances, Hitchens broke with the International Socialist Tendency over the group's support for military-based forces in the Portuguese Carnation revolution. In Hitchens' telling, these were "Baader Meinhof elements" on the wrong side of history. Hitchens imagines that he was not in a Leninist organization, when in reality, he was friendly with (but not a member of) a faction opposing democratic centralism within the IST at the time but was in no way a "full time organizer" or even a serious-minded activist.

This was part and parcel of Hitchens' extremely crude understanding of Marxism. Hitchens mined his particular leftist tradition for a conceptual vocabulary, without having any real understanding of the concepts with which he was working.  (Incidentally, while Seymour doesn't mention this, Hitchens wrote an introduction to a 1971 edition of Marx's Civil War in France that is an absolute hoot!) While a very sensitive -- if somewhat conservative -- literary critic, Hitchens simply didn't get Marxism. His deterministic understanding of history as linear path to be followed allowed for an admiration of the legendary neoliberal Margaret Thatcher, quietly even supporting the Malvinas war of 1982. What is more, he called 1492 a "great year" in human history, writing off 500 years of genocide against Indigenous peoples as just so much debris. Plenty of critiques could be raised of the work of Marxists he condemned at one point or another, even while identifying as one. But Hitchens didn't engage with what was wrong with what he criticized -- at best, he just poked fun.

Hitchens, Seymour points out, was not like other political or religious apostates, notably the first generation of neoconservatives who rejected their early political impulses, that had "grown older and wiser and that's why I'm turning you in." There also wasn't a sudden moment but a series of moments. But the truth is that Hitchens was never really on our side to begin with. In Seymour's estimation, Hitchens was a petit-bourgeois social climber who wanted to be close to power whatever the source, whether that be the movers and shakers of the socialist left, the American left intelligentsia, the world of "letters," even the department of Homeland Security.

But his case is far more interesting, and redolent of the degeneracy of intellectual culture in a general sense. He wasn't merely an opportunist with no principle, playing an act. He really believed that his shifting positions as a journalist had such significance that he would have to alter his entire social milieu, and even more so, this produced a categorical imperative to screw over his former friends and comrades. Not only did he slander Said and Chomsky, call Cockburn an anti-Semite, not credit Sam Husseini properly, accuse Husseini of having hidden knowledge of terrorist acts, claim Perry Anderson was on the wrong side of history and so on and so forth, but he also embraced David Horowitz (who he had once denounced in a memorable piece back in the late 80s) and Paul Wolfowitz, architect of the war in Iraq. He also felt that in doing so, he was no more than a bearer of the blind law of history itself.

Like Hitchens, Seymour is a brilliant writer, capable of the same balance of rhetoric and snark, good phrasing and humour. Unlike Hitchens, however, Seymour is on our side and has a solid grounding in historical materialism. Indeed, while accessible, this book itself is an exercise in the craft of historical materialism -- while relying in a secondary fashion on gossip and interviews with Hitchens' friends, much of the book constitutes a critique internal to Hitchens' entire written output, showing the germ of his late-in-life position was present from the start.  Indeed, he uses Hitchens' own logic against him. Hitchens is hardly unique as a baby boomer with complicated and shifting politics, always wanting to be on the "right side of history." The difference is Hitchens lived the baby boomer sell-out, the integration into neoliberal ideology, publicly, and left plenty of damage in his wake.

Did it matter? Is this important outside of the intelligentsia, Left and otherwise? I would argue that it is. Hitchens was a very effective propagandist for war. Without his propaganda, and particularly his support for McCarthyist tactics towards his former friends, which allowed those not identified with the Left to use such tactics, helped open up a whole new authoritarian discourse around loyalty.  

The fact that the American public is cheering on the pro-torture liberal-imperialist film Zero Dark Thirty these days is not unrelated to the pioneer of post-9/11 "War on Terror Intellectuals," that disgusting turncoat Christopher Hitchens.


Jordy Cummings is a PhD candidate at York University and a member of CUPE Local 3903. He has written for Basics, the Bullet, CounterPunch and Socialist Studies and is the Interventions Editor at Alternate Routes.


A version of this review was originally published in Basics and is reprinted here with permission. 


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