From International Socialist to Neo-Conservative Warmonger
Flicking through a collection of Leonard Cohen's poetry the other day, one phrase of Cohen's in passing caught my eye - 'Commissar of the West'. I immediately thought of Christopher Hitchens - one of the most militant, passionate and fervent intellectual champions of Western imperial power - who has now passed away. Those with strong stomachs can look at the kind of tributes that have flooded in from the American and British literary and political establishment for 'Hitch' - this by Denis MacShane is typical: "Christopher just swam against every tide," he said. "He was a supporter of the Polish and Czech resistance of the 1970s, he supported Mrs Thatcher because he thought getting rid of the Argentinian fascist junta was a good idea .... He was a cross between Voltaire and Orwell...''
In fact, Hitchens - rather than 'swimming against every tide' as he loved to present himself as doing in 'contrarian' style - after abandoning his youthful revolutionary Marxism was ultimately part of the 'great moving right show' that accompanied the defeat of the radical student, worker and wider liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s that had first pulled him into politics. He may have evolved from a young eloquent, flamboyant firebrand to an old bigoted reactionary far slower and in a far more interesting fashion than his brother Peter - but ultimately such a shift right was about as cliched a political and intellectual evolution as one can get.* Though it would be crude to reduce matters to economics alone, the material benefits that come from making such a transition for a petit-bourgeois intellectual like Hitchens should not be ignored - and in his case were not insubstantial and quite transparent - particularly after his move to America.
Worse than this, with 9/11 Hitchens consciously decided to use his polemical talents and literary flair in the service of great power and appalling acts of Western state terrorism and violence - a betrayal of the very ideal of the role of the liberal intellectual in society - and became one of those Marx once described as the 'hired prizefighters' of the ruling class and someone whom Voltaire and Orwell would have detested. Another of Hitchens's heroes, the great anti-imperialist writer and historian C.L.R. James, once wrote that 'to come within the orbit of imperialist politics is to be debilitated by the stench, to be drowned in the morass of lies and hypocrisy' - and this was to be fate of Hitchens in the last decade of his life as he descended into racist hysterical ranting in support of the 'war on terror'.
Yet Hitchens was never just another boring Islamophobic megaphone endlessly blaring out state propaganda - because of his superior knowledge of radical politics and revolutionary history he had the skills to help to shape the form that propaganda took. When George Bush attacked what he called 'totalitarian...Islamic fascism', he was drawing on the critique of 'totalitarianism' with a long pedigree and heritage dating back to anti-fascist writers like Orwell in the 1930s - a critique that had been honed by the likes of Hitchens to ensure that 'anti-totalitarianism' no longer included opposition to the totalitarianism of Western state power, multinational corporate power, and imperialism as a system in general. The dedication and seriousness that Hitchens devoted to this task of mutating 'anti-totalitarianism' from something once firmly rooted in an anti-Stalinist left-wing intellectual mileu into something that could be invoked and used by even George W Bush's speechwriters to serve the interests of the most right-wing American administration in recent memory for its 'Project for the New American Century' helps explain the acolades now being bestowed on him. As Alex Callinicos notes in his obituary of Hitchens, 'he died firmly in the embrace of the establishment, a literary celebrity lavished with praise by mainstream non-entities. This is a sorry end for someone who, at his best, could articulate much nobler aspirations'.
* Hitchens's quick wit never completely deserted him - this is what he thought of David Cameron when asked about him in 2010: "He seems content-free to me. Never had a job, except in PR, and it shows. People ask, 'What do you think of him?' and my answer is: 'He doesn't make me think'"...)
Edited to add: See Dave Renton's article 'Christopher in Khaki' and also Ian Birchall's comment below:
It is interesting to compare him with Paul Foot. Both had the same public school/Oxford training, and used the literary and oratorical skills they had acquired from it. But Foot had a solid core of principles which stayed with him to the very end - and which certainly made him less successful, in terms of official recognition, than he otherwise might have been. Hitchens, even in his left-wing phase, was always much more committed to his own career and to staying within the bounds of the mainstream. I knew him when he was a member of the Hornsey International Socialists in 1974, and I have to say I never liked or trusted him very much. That is only a personal reaction, of course, but I always felt the commitement to his personal advancement was greater than his commitment to the socialist cause.