A review of Christopher Hitchens’ And Yet …

6525109467_5cfee418bb_bThe front cover of And Yet … strikes a defiant note, showing its author, Christopher Hitchens, doing the two things that killed him: chugging large glasses of Johnnie Walker Black Label and smoking cigarettes down to the filter. But the more interesting challenge thrown down by this book – a collection of essays, reviews and opinion pieces published in the late 1990s and 2000s – concerns Hitchens’ posthumous reputation, or ideological afterlife. It is a challenge thrown not at life but at the left, and especially at that portion of it that declared its author persona non grata.

The line, smoothly rehashed in the obituaries, is that Hitchens started out ‘on the left’ but in his final decade ‘moved to the right’. According to this narrative he is supposed to have walked a road worn smooth by the likes of Kingsley Amis and the historian Paul Johnson (or, to bring things closer to home, Paddy McGuinness and Keith Windschuttle): people who, having lost their faith, are assumed by conservatives to have regained their reason but are regarded by their former comrades as traitors and reactionaries.

If And Yet … makes one thing plain it’s that this view of Hitchens becomes harder to hold the more you actually read his stuff. Unfortunately for Leninists like Richard Seymour, who argues in Unhitched that the rightwing rot had set in many years before 9/11, the book is full of admiration – qualified, but never less than passionate – for radicals as different as Che Guevara, George Orwell and Rosa Luxemburg, while the contempt evinced for Henry Kissinger and paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan is eloquent and unambiguous. The piece on Luxemburg is particularly interesting for anyone interested in the history of the left and the question of what is salvageable from the wreckage of revolutionary socialism. The principle Hitchens salvaged from it, and held on to till the end, was its internationalism.

Unfortunately, and as Hitchens says himself apropos of the American Civil Liberties Union’s suit against the US Government’s ‘Homeland Security’ measures brought in after the 9/11 attacks – a suit, incidentally, in which he was a plaintiff – there are issues where taking a principled stand will place you in company you wouldn’t normally keep. So it proved in the case of Iraq, where Hitchens’ support for military action put him on the same team as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz – to the shock and dismay of many on the left.

The problem for his position was that in cases of war the line between principle and practice is non-existent: the moral case for intervention and the planning around it are one and the same. It is thus sad to find Hitchens, in ‘No Regrets’ (2008), still attacking the Democrats for what they might have done rather than attacking Team Bush for what it did, or rather what it didn’t do, which was to plan for the contingency that, denuded of its psychopathic leader, Iraq would implode into civil war. There was something rather self-regarding about the way in which some ‘liberal hawks’ later declared themselves mistaken about the war; but I much prefer their mea culpas to Hitchens’ bitter intransigence.

Still I’m convinced that Hitchens’ position was the projection of his anti-totalitarianism and not, as was widely put around at the time, the tantrum of some neo-patriot traumatised by 9/11. As Hitchens’ great exemplar George Orwell well knew, it is necessary to be against fascism and imperialism, but one can’t always be effective against both at the same time. Hitchens made his choice, and his critics made theirs, and from the smashed up citadels in that war of words it should be possible to construct an intelligent argument about how to meet the challenge posed by, say, Islamic State or Bashar al-Assad without swallowing the rhetoric of Western leaders like Tony Abbott. Veterans of the ‘Stop the War Coalition’ might like to begin by reading this, from a (cool) review of Peter Beinart’s The Good Fight:

Easy propaganda points can be made to the effect that the United States’ ruling establishment is often the author of its own misfortunes. But this does not exempt the citizens of the country, confronted with chickens from whatever roost they may originate, from deciding whether or not these birds of ill omen should be shot down.

That’s brutally put but its reasoning is impeccable. I would add only that And Yet … reveals the later Hitchens to be as disgusted as he ever was about the Vietnam War, Clinton’s rocketing of Al-Shifa, and a range of other imperial misadventures.

In his last decade of life Hitchens became, as well as a celebrity atheist, something of an historian of the US. Both of these interests were related, of course, to what we now have to call ‘the war on terror’; to some extent Hitchens was inviting his readers to rally to what is best in the republican tradition: its secularism and its commitment to liberty. But it is interesting to note that when he writes about Thanksgiving or even – Lord help us – stock car racing it is US egalitarianism that he wishes to celebrate. One of my favourite pieces in the book – an attack on the parochialism of certain conservatives – turns the tables on those who would define the US on racial or religious grounds. In America, writes Hitchens, ‘your internationalism can and should be your patriotism’.

Perhaps I’m obsessing about this question; but the facts of Hitchens’ ‘apostasy’ are as follows. In 2001, he left The Nation, for which he’d written a column for many years, because he thought it had become ‘an echo chamber’ for leftists who thought the Attorney General was a bigger threat than Osama bin Laden. Later he ceased to call himself a socialist, not because he regretted taking part in the causes championed under that banner, but because the absence of a radical working class movement, internationalist and linked to the point of production, rendered the identification hollow. Personally I’d rather he hadn’t done either of these things, but the idea that he staggered from left to right like some Cold War neocon is a travesty. He was a radical, and this fine collection of essays is a poke in the eye to those who say otherwise.

Christopher Hitchens, And Yet …: Essays
Allen & Unwin; $33; 341pp

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First published in The Weekend Australian