Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens
By Richard Seymour
Verso Books, 2012
Read an excerpt
First impressions do matter. In the case of Christopher Hitchens, my first impression of him was that of a witty tool for the George W Bush administration’s wars.
In 2005, I first saw Hitchens while randomly flipping through television channels. I found a debate between him and Scottish anti-war Respect MP George Galloway on the Iraq War.
Whatever faults Galloway may possess, his vehement opposition to the war echoed my own feelings. Galloway’s opponent, though, was a rather burly looking man with too much sweat dripping down his forehead.
He’d no doubt had too much to drink before that debate, but Hitchens was capable of turning a clever phrase and of gaining a chuckle from the audience. Yet I found Hitchens’ rhetoric to be hollow and utterly detestable. He was making a “leftist” case to defend the Bush’s administration’s imperialist and genocidal venture in Iraq as a war of liberation.
So my first impression of Hitchens was that of the lowest form of slime. And the more I came to know of him, I found he was even worse than I first suspected.
He had once been a socialist who protested against the Vietnam War, but was now on the other side of the barricades as an unapologetic imperialist.
Rather than praising Hitchens, as happens all too often after his passing in 2011, it is time to place him on trial and render a verdict. Although the defendant is being tried in absentia, we the jury have a powerful prosecutor in the person of Richard Seymour.
Seymour, an English socialist, is an experienced prosecutor in this regard, having already scourged leftist apostates turned imperialists in his book Liberal Defense of Murder and who exposes the status quo from his popular website, Lenin’s Tomb.
Having turned his sights on Hitchens, Seymour has written a well-argued, concise and powerful brief that can leave no doubt that Hitchens is guilty.
Seymour looks primarily at Hitchen’s political trajectory and writings and judges them on their merits. Hitchens’ better known works from his left-leaning days, such as the Trial of Henry Kissinger and The Missionary Position, borrowed without giving credit, at times bordering on plagiarism.
Seymour acknowledges that Hitchens had a certain skill as a writer in putting the ideas of others in often more digestible form. The Trial of Henry Kissinger is a slam-dunk case that Kissinger belongs in jail.
However, Hitchens’ writing style polemicised in a way that misrepresented the claims of others. Once Hitchens became an imperial jester, he moved into the realm of open dishonesty, with claims that were based on the flimsiest of assertions (such as God Is Not Great).
In God Is Not Great, Hitchens attacks the supernatural claims of religion and also blames religion for a multitude of political atrocities from Northern Ireland to Iraq. However, as Seymour states, in blaming religion for these conflicts is to reduce complex conflicts to simplistic answers.
For instance, in blaming religion for fighting in Northern Ireland, Hitchens does not discuss the role of British colonialism in creating a sectarian state based on Protestant privilige.
In Iraq, Hitchens states the whole insurgency was driven by religious fanaticism. Yet he forgets that many religious forces were integrated into the repressive apparatus of the US occupation. All the evidence, such as US intelligence reports, say that the Iraqi insurgency was not a purely religious reflux.
Hitchens deplores religion, but he deplores Islam more than others. He believes Islam is incapable of undergoing a reformation like other religions, even though Islam has been as changeable as other religions throughout history.
Since Hitchens believed that Islam is cannot be reformed, he believes the West must do whatever possible to annihilate the Islamic threat. Hitchens condemned any explanation that sought to link attacks on the United States to its foreign policy; rather he believed that Islam itself was a violent and evil religion. To fight this existential threat, Hitchens supported deportation, the curtailment of freedoms for Muslims, and war.
Calling for the curtailment of freedom for Muslims was one of the many instances of Hitchens’ utter hypocrisy. He condemned Iranian mullahs for putting a death sentence on Salman Rushdie’s head as denying freedom of expression, but celebrated the most draconian aspects of the Bush years such the Patriot Act with its infringement on personal freedoms.
Seeds of reaction
Seymour does not say that there is a crystal-cut demarcation in Hitchens’s writing and politics after 9/11, where the good is abruptly replaced by the bad (not to deny that Hitchens turned hard to the right). Rather, the seeds of his reactionary turn that could be detected much earlier fully blossomed after 9/11.
Hitchens was born in the aftermath of World War II into a naval family pledged to serve the dying British empire. His Jewish mother had a desire for her son to find his way into the ruling class and take his rightful place.
Seymour does not believe that Hitchens emerged fully formed as a slug from birth. But in his early years, he possessed a conscience while still desiring social advancement.
Hitchens lived a double life at times. While at an elite school, he enjoyed the company of the rich and famous but also spent time selling revolutionary papers as a militant of the International Socialists (IS).
In the turbulent 1960s, with revolution seemingly around the corner, Hitchens made one of the few decent choices in his life by joining the IS. He attended rallies, spent time in jail and supported just causes.
However, the outcome of the 1974 Carnation Revolution in Portugal left him with little faith in a revolutionary option and he left the IS (although to the end, he had nostalgia for this period of his life). Hitchens quickly found his niche as a journalist with a leftist edge.
It has often been said that Hitchens was a contrarian who could defend the Iraq War and support bombing, but also praise Leon Trotsky. There is nothing especially unique about this.
He may have had a way with words, but as Seymour points out, there is a long tradition of this style of apostacism -- from the New York intellectuals to the French New Philosophers who dress up their support for imperialism with words borrowed from the left.
In the United States in the 1980s, Hitchens continued his climb up the social ladder as a journalist while condemning the foreign and domestic policies of US president Ronald Reagan.
Yet Hitchens reserved special vitriol for Bill Clinton. For one, Clinton had slighted him and this was unforgivable. But he was also a strong opponent of Clinton’s sell-out on health care, welfare reform and wrote about Hitchens affair with Monica Lewinsky (resulting in a book, No One Left to Lie To).
Yet as Seymour points out, a great deal of this criticism was personalised rather than directed at the institutions of US capitalism.
Seymour explains that Hitchens lowered his standards of what was morally acceptable after 2001. Hitchens found his place as a red-blooded American, throwing caution to the wind. He openly embraced reactionary causes defending torture, the military apparatus and the worst forms of bigotry against Muslims.
It wasn’t just the desire to succeed that motivated Hitchens. Hitchens believed that the United States was on the right side of history, progress and enlightenment.
In his mind, whereas other revolutions and forces of progress had failed (such as the British empire and socialism), the American Revolution was still standing and bristling with military power. Although he vacillated for a while, after 2001 Hitchens would believe that the military power of the United States could be used for the noble end of delivering freedom.
Although, Hitchens in answering this question forgot the old quip of Lenin: freedom for whom to do what?
Hitchens had always had a rather indulgent view towards colonialism, lamenting the decline of British power. He defended poets and writers who mourned for the days of “the sun that never sets” with its concentration camps, famines and massacres.
After the fall of the empire and World War II, Hitchens saw Britain suffering from malaise that grew more acute with the “winter of discontent” in the late 1970s. Believing that the Labour Party couldn’t offer a way out for Britain, Hitchens saw Thatcher’s aggressive British nationalism (he was cheering for Britain during the Falklands War against Argentina) as a force for revitalisation.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, Hitchens still had enough of a leftist instinct left in him to support the Palestinian cause (including working with acclaimed scholar Edward Said) and opposing the first Iraq War. Yet he was still on the look-out for another paragon of progress whom he could get behind. The longer he stayed in the United States, the more it fit the bill.
After the destruction of Twin Towers, this admiration became jingoism as he saw the United States and its military as a liberating force in the world, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, whatever the cost.
In this new role, Hitchens had finally achieved the success his mother had dreamed about for him. He was now a celebrity writing bestselling books and lauded by the powers-that-be.
Following the example of George Orwell (whom he always admired), Hitchens became a propagandist for war as a crusade for freedom. Yet the United States was not fighting a just war like Orwell’s fighting against fascism in Spain, rather it was engaged in torture and murder on a scale that would make Franco blush.
When Hitchens saw that the US war in Iraq did not live up to the professed rhetoric, he just brushed it off and stood behind the Stars and Stripes. To the end, he never apologised.
Hitchens was celebrated for originality, eloquent wit and independence of thought. He claimed to be a contrarian, but was one of the foremost propagandists for the Bush administration and its wars. Indeed, Hitchen’s apostasy dovetailed neatly with his immense ego and the ruling ideology.
So what are we to make of Hitchens? Having sat through the prosecution’s case, one can merely mutter of Christopher Hitchens, “the guilty bastard”.
[A longer version can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Doug Enaa Greene is a socialist and editor of the Boston Occupier.]