What Christopher Hitchens Knew
And what apostate hunters get wrong.
“Christopher Hitchens: From socialist to neocon.” It was an irresistible headline because it’s a story that has been told over and over again. The novelist Julian Barnes called this phenomenon the “ritual shuffle to the right.” Richard Seymour, who wrote a book-length attack on Hitchens, says his subject belongs to a “recognisable type: a left-wing defector with a soft spot for empire.” By presenting Hitchens as a tedious archetype, hobbling away from radicalism and toward some inevitable reactionary terminus, his opponents didn’t have to contend with his arguments or confront the potentially destabilizing fact that some of his principles called their own into question.
Hitchens, who died in 2011, didn’t make it easy on the apostate hunters. To many, he was a “coarser version of [conservative commentator] Norman Podhoretz” when he talked about Iraq, and a radical humanist truth-teller when he went on Fox News to lambaste the Christian right: “If you gave Falwell an enema,” he told Sean Hannity the day after Jerry Falwell’s death, “he could be buried in a matchbox.” Then he gave Islam the same treatment, and he was suddenly a drooling neocon again. He defied easy categorization: a socialist who spurned ideology, an internationalist who became a patriot, a man of the left who was reviled by the left.
The left isn’t a single amorphous entity—it’s a vast constellation of (often conflicting) ideas and principles. Hitchens’s style of left-wing radicalism is now out of fashion, but it has a long and venerable history: George Orwell’s unwavering opposition to totalitarianism and censorship, Bayard Rustin’s advocacy for universal civil rights without appealing to tribalism and identity politics, the post-communist anti-totalitarianism that emerged on the European left in the second half of the twentieth century.
Hitchens described himself as a “First Amendment absolutist,” an echo of historic left-wing struggles for free expression—from Eugene V. Debs’s assertion of his right to dissent during World War I to the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. Hitchens argued that unfettered free speech and inquiry would always make civil society stronger. When he wrote the introduction to his collection of essays For the Sake of Argument in 1993, he had a specific left-wing tradition in mind: the left of Orwell and Victor Serge and C.L.R. James, which simultaneously opposed Stalinism, fascism, and imperialism in the twentieth century, and which stood for “individual and collective emancipation, self-determination and internationalism.”
Hitchens’ most fundamental political and moral conviction was universalism. He loathed nationalism and argued that the international system should be built around a “common standard for justice and ethics”—a standard that should apply to Henry Kissinger just as it should apply to Slobodan Milošević and Saddam Hussein. He believed in the concept of global citizenship, which is why he firmly supported international institutions like the European Union. He didn’t just despise religion because he regarded it as a form of totalitarianism—he also recognized that it’s an infinitely replenishable wellspring of tribal hatred.
He also opposed identity politics, because he didn’t think our social and civic lives should be reduced to rigid categories based on melanin, X chromosomes, and sexuality. He recognized that the Enlightenment values of individual rights, freedom of expression and conscience, humanism, pluralism, and democracy are universal—they provide the most stable, just, and rational foundation for any civil society, whether they’re observed in America or Europe or Iraq.
And yes, he argued that these values are for export. Hitchens believed in universal human rights. This is why, at a time when his comrades were still manning the barricades against the “imperial” West after the Cold War, he argued that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization should intervene to stop a genocidal assault on Bosnia. It’s why he argued that American power could be used to defend human rights and promote democracy. As many on the Western left built their politics around incessant condemnations of their own societies as racist, exploitative, oligarchic, and imperialistic, Hitchens recognized the difference between self-criticism and self-flagellation.
One of the reasons Orwell accumulated many left-wing enemies in his time was the fact that his criticisms of his own “side” were grounded in authentic left-wing principles. When he argued that many socialists had no connection to or understanding of the actual working class in Britain, the observation stung because it was true. Orwell’s arguments continue to sting today. In his 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism,” he criticized the left-wing intellectuals who enjoy “seeing their own country humiliated” and “follow the principle that any faction backed by Britain must be in the wrong.” Among some of these intellectuals, Orwell wrote: “One finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States. Moreover they do not as a rule condemn violence as such, but only violence used in defense of the Western countries.”
Hitchens observed that many on today’s left are motivated by the same principle: “Nothing will make us fight against an evil if that fight forces us to go to the same corner as our own government.” This is a predictable manifestation of what the American political theorist Michael Walzer calls the “default position” of the left: a purportedly “anti-imperialist and anti-militarist” position inclined toward the view that “everything that goes wrong in the world is America’s fault.”
Indeed, the tendency to ignore and rationalize even the most egregious violence and authoritarianism abroad in favor of an obsessive emphasis on the crimes and blunders of Western governments has become a reflex. Much of the left has been captured by a strange mix of sectarian and authoritarian impulses: a myopic emphasis on identitarianism and group rights over the individual; an orientation toward subjectivity and tribalism over objectivity and universalism; and demands for political orthodoxy enforced by repressive tactics like the suppression of speech.
These left-wing pathologies are particularly corrosive today because they give right-wing nationalists and populists on both sides of the Atlantic—whose rise over the past several years has been characterized by hostility to democratic norms and institutions, rampant xenophobia, and other forms of illiberalism—an opportunity to claim that those who oppose them are the true authoritarians. Hitchens was prescient about the ascendance of right-wing populism in the West, from the emergence of demagogues who exploit cultural grievances and racial resentments to the bitter parochialism of “America First” nationalism. He understood that the left could only defeat these noxious political forces by rediscovering its best traditions: support for free expression, pluralism, and universalism—the values of the Enlightenment.
Hitchens closes his book Why Orwell Matters with the following observation: “What he [Orwell] illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that ‘views’ do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.” Despite the pervasive idea that Hitchens exchanged one set of convictions for another by the end of his life, his commitment to his core principles never wavered. They are principles that today’s left must rediscover.
Matt Johnson is a journalist and the author of the forthcoming book, How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment, from which this piece is excerpted.
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