The Third International after Lenin

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ugly and difficult [Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011]

Saturday, 17 December 2011

David Beecham knew Christopher Hitchens in his better days. And he's got a few things to say about the minor media frenzy that has accompanied his death.

Christopher Hitchens

A young Christopher Hitchens

The death of Christopher Hitchens is an occasion for regret. Regret at the loss of a life cut short by a nasty disease, regret at the loss of a former friend, and regret at the loss of a considerable talent.

But also regret at the loss of a talent that was once devoted to the defence of liberty, self-determination and the defence of the weak against the strong - and ended up in the service of the rich and powerful and in justifying a war of the strong against the weak.

Christopher described himself as a Marxist to the end I believe - at any rate he was still describing himself as a Marxist when he appeared on BBC Radio 4 in August 2006 and did a eulogy of Trotsky in a series of programmes on "Great Lives". Rather pompously he declared he had chosen Trotsky in preference to "someone furry like George Orwell".

In fact it is quite hard to think of anyone less furry than Orwell - an awkward, ugly man and a difficult person to get on with, unlike Trotsky who was a charmer and one of the most charismatic men in history. But then Orwell, unlike Hitchens, knew what imperialism was like from his personal experience as a policeman in Burma. Orwell came to detest imperialism and consistently denounced it whereas Hitchens started off by hating imperialism and came to embrace it.

Hitchens was obviously influenced by Orwell, certainly more than by Trotsky, to the extent that he made the very Orwellian gesture of submitting himself to so-called "waterboarding" in order to demonstrate the horror of American torture techniques.

It was a courageous thing to do (you can see it on You Tube if you have the stomach for it) and Christopher was never short of courage. Yet it was a gesture. As he admitted himself it was a controlled experiment. Nothing like real torture, where the victim is isolated, humiliated, terrorised day after day, night after night and finally reduced to a babbling wreck pleading for unconsciousness and death. It was a stunt, an exercise in political pornography.

Pornography may seem an offensive word to use in this context. But there are internet sites that cater for those with sadomasochist tastes (including water torture) and - if you have the stomach for it - you will discover that the actors have a "safe word" which is the same word Hitchens was told to use as a sign of distress to stop the simulated torture scene. (The word is "red" and apparently he forgot it, although whether this is politically significant must be a matter of speculation).

Hitchens endured the simulation for just a few seconds. That's not a criticism; he had made his point. However he also evaded some points.

This form of water torture has been known since the 17th century at least. It is the type of torture that was outlawed during the Enlightenment - that period that Hitchens and his cothinkers are so fond of contrasting with "Islamic Medievalism". And it is a form of torture that reappeared with the Nazis and was employed by the Gestapo in the dungeons of Paris during their interrogation of members of the resistance.

As far as I know Hitchens didn't make those political connections, not in private and certainly not in public. Not because he was ignorant. He knew all about them. Just as he knew about the US atrocities during the Vietnam war, which he opposed, and the atrocities of the French in Algeria.

Don't get me wrong. Hitchens wrote a passionate article for Vanity Fair about his experience and he did denounce the use of torture by the US regime. What he chose not to mention was that such atrocities, and the use of torture in general, have always been a hallmark of Imperialism, just as torture was a hallmark of the Inquisition, although it should be noted that the Inquisition was more reluctant to use it.

Christopher's hatred of bigotry, fundamentalism, despotism and the oppression of women was genuine. His defence of free speech was also genuine (some of it should be taken on board by the left). But by lining up with Bush and Blair he became complicit in what they did - terrorism, torture and mass murder included, and the lies that were used to justify them. And freedom of speech is not the same as the freedom to insult and humiliate people because of their religious faith.

As far as his left-wing militancy is concerned a certain mythology has been created as the years have gone by.

Like his brother Peter, who later became a tedious moralist for the Daily Mail, Christopher joined the International Socialists when he went to Oxford University. Unlike his brother, Christopher was never a great activist, although in his favour he was never tedious and he was certainly not a moralist. Quite the reverse: he cultivated a definitely Byronic image at university, sleeping around with great enthusiasm and drinking the night away (and sometimes the day as well).

The Guardian obituary claims he was almost expelled from school for homosexuality (by happy chance it was the Leys in Cambridge) and last year he boasted of sleeping with two future Tory (male) cabinet ministers while at Oxford. I suspect that particular tale was designed to boost sales of his autobiography - he was not a man given to death-bed confessions. But it is true he was experimental when it came to politics as well as sex.

To my knowledge Christopher was never much involved with car workers while at Oxford, as the Guardian claims. It is possible that he did once "address them through a bullhorn on an upturned milk crate" although the use of the word bullhorn suggests this story comes from New York rather than Cowley.

He was however a great activist in student politics. When the Americans extended the Vietnam war to Cambodia in 1970 - the event which began Cambodia's descent into hell - Christopher led the demonstration that stormed into the Oxford Union to confront Michael Stewart, the Foreign Secretary, who was there to justify the Labour government's support for the war.

It was a fantastic moment with an impact out of all proportion to the size of the demonstration - 300-400 at most. Stewart was heckled and shouted down, Hitchens to the fore, and the disgraceful affair was splashed all over the front page of the Daily Mirror the following day. A great example of the way students can sometimes provide a political lead and just the sort of action that years later Hitchens would denounce when it came to the war in Iraq.

Christopher again showed that flair for the dramatic when he was one of those who confronted the Polish ambassador, a certain Marian Dobrosielski, again in the Oxford Union.

Dobrosielski was a nasty piece of work, a real Stalinist apparatchik straight out of a Le Carré novel: a professor of philosophy in the pay of the SB security police. He had been personally involved in the repression at Warsaw University in March 1968, handing protesting students over to the militia.

Needless to say this demonstration went completely unnoticed by the Mirror and the rest of the Brtitish media, but it was reported in detail in Germany by Der Spiegel and thus had a small impact back in Poland on the eve of the workers' protests that exploded in December 1970.

Those are the good memories. The not so good come from years later when we met in Fleet Street and he was smashed out of his skull at three in the afternoon. No longer Byron, more Dorian Gray. But he was still a socialist at that stage, and an international socialist as well.

He understood what had happened in Vietnam and Cambodia, and in Poland and Czechoslovakia, because of those politics. They didn't come out of his head, although I'm sure like most of us he had the right instincts - to oppose imperialism and war, both east and west. But it is very hard to sustain those politics when you have the gift of the gab and can turn out well-written stuff at the drop of a hat and when you are being lionised in New York with no political organisation to help you keep your bearings.

While he was still nominally on the left he produced a polemic about Mother Teresa which earned him considerable notoriety. Wittily entitled The Missionary Position the book denounced both the hypocrisy of her movement, the Missionaries of Charity, and its cult of suffering - and also her relationships with political personalities such as Hillary Clinton and the Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier.

Mother Teresa, devout Catholic ascetic - Christopher Hitchens, louche atheist sybarite. There could hardly be a great contrast. Yet curiously there are some parallels.

Both seem to have suffered confusion about their identity and their beliefs.

Mother Teresa was born in Kosovo when that part of the world was still part of the Ottoman Empire. It was only after her father's death, when she was eight years old, that she was raised as a Catholic. Eventually she became an Indian citizen, but late in life she lost her way and like many other devout people she apparently lost her faith.

Christopher had the disconcerting experience of discovering his Jewish background well into adult life. He was, shall we say, catholic in his sexuality. His Marxism gradually seems to have turned into an act of faith - "I am a Marxist, but I'm not a socialist" was one of his claims late on in life. But his formulation (in 2007) that organised religion is "the main source of hatred in the world" is so contrary to everything Marx argued - the young Marx, the old Marx and the middle-aged Marx as well - shows how his Marxism ended up as an empty shell.

Mother Teresa and Christopher Hitchens were undoubtedly compelled by a hatred of poverty and injustice. Both of them became international figures. Both were utterly convinced they were right. Both supped with the Devil, using a very short spoon. And both of them died to a chorus of sycophants.

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