Saturday 27 July 2013

The Hitchens Brothers - Salisbury Review, Winter 2010-11

The class struggle is over. Christopher Hitchens, Marxist polemicist to the world, is no longer a man of the Left. On some days, confesses Hitchens, apostasy leaves him with a feeling akin to “the phantom pain of a missing limb”. On other days the sensation is more like “having taken off a needlessly heavy overcoat”. No more does he believe in a radiant socialist future and increasingly reflects “upon the shipwrecks and prison islands to which the quest has led”. Nevertheless, in his lively memoir, Hitch-22 (2010), Hitchens argues cleverly and in the end persuasively that advancing age has not betrayed the principles of his youth, and that he continues to be as radical and adversarial as ever. 

Critics on the Left will, for the most part, remain unconvinced. Certainly Hitchens freely confesses to having experienced “the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters” Margaret Thatcher was correct. Moreover, throughout the past two decades he has been a vocal if nuanced defender of Gulf War I, NATO intervention in Bosnia, Western intervention in Afghanistan and Gulf War II.

Leftists will also abhor the sympathetic picture he draws of the relationship between George W. H. Bush and the Kurds in northern Iraq. Yet Hitch-22 does not mark a political transformation in the way David Horowitz’s Second Thoughts: Former Radicals Look Back at the 60s does. Hitchens is no conservative. He continues to be unrepentant about his opposition to the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan and even poor old Mother Teresa.

Hitchens’ recent bestseller, god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is another case in point. Though Hitchens’ name often turns up on lists of new wave atheists, his anti-religion stance is less Richard Dawkins than Ludwig Feuerbach. On the subject of religion, at least, Hitchens remains a nineteenth-century Marxist who thinks belief in God is a dangerous irrationality, an impediment to greater justice in this world.

In a brief interview-and-answer section (à la Vanity Fair), Hitchens even offers up Leon Trotsky as one of his favourite characters in history. If one takes Hitchens at his word then the incongruity of his political position begins to take on a certain kind of logic. In the context of today the term “Trotskyism” has become almost meaningless. There are as many self-avowed Trotskyists prepared to find common cause with Radical Islam as not. Even so, Hitchens is heir to the one valuable tradition in Trotskyism – the capacity (and inclination) to challenge the orthodoxies of the Left from within the Left itself. 

Consider, for instance, Hitchens’ acerbic dismissal of the political musings of Leftist icons such as Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal and Edward Said. It is a powerful critique, and even more so for all of these characters being former confidantes of his. About Chomsky, Hitchens says: “Regarding almost everything since Columbus as having been one continuous succession of genocides and land-thefts, he did not really believe that the United States of America was a good idea to begin with.” Chomsky, like so many others in the New Left, might promote himself as a libertarian socialist, but in that one pointed sentence Hitchens unmasks the man’s real political identity – nihilism.

And so we arrive at the real (if implicit) theme of Hitch-22. This memoir is not so much Christopher Hitchens leaving the Left, but of the Left leaving Christopher Hitchens. Not only does anti-Americanism and thinly disguised anti-Semitism blight the modern-day Left. There is also the issue of relativism, arriving in 1969 in the form of “The Personal Is Political”. Ever since, argues Hitchens, “to be a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic preference” has been enough “to qualify as a revolutionary”. The consequence of this “sinister” development has already deeply compromised the West and possesses the capacity to wreak even more havoc in the future.  

Political relativism, in the opinion of Hitchens, has made society and the Enlightenment Project vulnerable in ways few could have predicted: “More depressing still, to see that in the face of this vicious assault so many of the best lack all conviction, hesitating to defend the society that makes their existence possible, while the worst are full to the brim and boiling over with murderous exaltation.” One only needs to consider the trials and tribulations of Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, let alone the fate of Theo van Gogh, to comprehend his meaning. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, it was Hitchens on the cover of The Spectator boldly announcing Islamo-fascism as the great enemy of civilisation.

Right from the outset Hitchens acknowledges that Hitch-22 will not rise far above the genre of a “political memoir”. He does cover his mother’s disturbing and tragic death, his father’s character and his famous friendship with the brilliant novelist Martin Amis, and yet the colour and depth of these powerful (and admirable) personal connections are never totally realised. Hitchens candidly admits that he is first and foremost a polemicist, modestly contrasting his writing talents with the artistry of friends like Martin Amis and James Fenton.

That said, Hitchens conveys an intriguing complexity in the relationship with his “almost tragically right-wing” brother Peter. Christopher appears to have teased and derided his younger sibling from an early age. Politically, at least, the two brothers could not have been more different. Christopher mockingly asserts that various arguments in Peter’s book, The Broken Compass, make him “desire to be wearing a necklace of the purest garlic even while reading them.” Peter is a Christian, after all. Significantly, though, Christopher goes on to acknowledge insights in The Broken Compass that are both compelling and unsettling. He even tries to build an intellectual bridge between the two by mentioning (admittedly in a footnote) the possibility of “there being such a thing as a Protestant atheist”. There is also the wonderful anecdote about the childhood quest for an unabridged version of The Pilgrim’s Progress.  

None of this is to imply that Christopher Hitchens, atheist and contrarian, is about to become a conservative like his brother or, for that matter, a conservative of any kind. Hitchens makes it clear on the last page that he feels “absurdly honoured to be grouped in the public mind” with such characters as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris. Nonetheless, Christopher’s begrudging respect for brother Peter might signify something hopeful. Here we have the possibility of the archetypal rebel and the archetypal traditionalist lining up, at long last, on the same side of the barricades in the defence of Western Civilisation.

First published in the Winter 2010-11 edition of Salisbury Review.