Hitchens on Trial
In his new book, Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Seymour takes a critical look at the late Christopher Hitchens' life, work, and relationship with the radical left. He spoke to NLP's Alex Doherty.
The journey of the apostate leftist is a familiar one. Why did you feel that Christopher Hitchens was worthy of a book length treatment?
I think, first of all, that Hitchens is an immensely interesting subject in himself. He condensed in his own increasing portly carriage so many of the dominant political themes of the last decade: war and liberalism, religion and Islamophobia, the fate of political ideologies in the 21st Century, and so on. In the last ten years of his life, he acquired more success, more fame, than he had ever had. He went to his grave with kind words from Bush and Blair, which is probably unique among political writers. There has been an attempt by the British Humanist Association to erect a statue in his honour. His books continue to be bestsellers, and there has been an ongoing debate about his legacy as a writer – dominated, to its detriment, by fans and sycophants. This is especially problematic because Hitchens erected so many mythologies about himself and his changing positions that the debate is taking place to a great extent at the level of fiction. So, I wanted to arm more critical readers with the means to engage in that debate in an informed way.
When it comes to apostasy, I think there is a lacuna in our understanding of this. In the prologue, I try to outline some of the broad tendencies that underline the shift of radicals toward conservative positions, and see how this can be applied to Hitchens's defection. This is itself a source of controversy, because many of Hitchens's fans would insist that he retained a fidelity to left-wing positions until the end, and that even his foreign policy orientations were consistent with a leftist internationalism that, supposedly, the actually existing left had abandoned. So, I thought it was important to establish how much Hitchens conformed to the stereotype of the apostate. For all his idiosyncrasies, he is actually quite typical. Cutting through the confusion around this would help avoid a lot of unnecessary disorientation, particularly if new periods of political reaction come upon us.
You point out that Hitchens had always displayed a certain nostalgia for empire and a closet admiration for right-wing radicalism. How did those tendencies square with his avowed socialism?
They didn't. Hitchens maintained 'two sets of books', as he liked to put it, and the two didn't have to square. His political personality was always a complex combination of elements: he was an internationalist but also a closeted nationalist; a socialist with Thatcherite sympathies; a champion of the working class who didn't have much sympathy for the poor; an anti-imperialist who thought empire was a progressive force; and so on. What really changed after 9/11 decisively was that the politically conservative elements in his persona came to the fore, as he energetically renounced his leftist reflexes. Even before 9/11, he had been undergoing a protracted, painful adjustment. He had started to become impatient with the Left over Bosnia, although even he opposed a military intervention until quite late. He began to find friends on the Right over the Clinton affair. He was increasingly of the view that the neocons, far from perishing as he had predicted at the end of the Cold War, had more dynamism than he had anticipated. He finally confessed to Reason magazine in 2001 that socialism was over – there was no longer a force capable of realising its ambitions. All that was left was the creative destruction of capitalism, the only revolution left standing. So by the time he embraced American nationalism, joined the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, and declared himself a Jeffersonian imperialist, he had already begun to lay the intellectual and emotional groundwork for the transition.
You note in the book Hitchens' tendency to focus on the inequities of individuals rather than institutions – why do you think that is significant and what explains Hitchens' tendency to either excoriate or idolise certain individuals?
I think ressentiment energised him; it is what got him up in the morning. You could see this tendency to wear his spleen on his sleeve in his early baiting of Reagan-era officials, of various former left-wing sell-outs, and then of George H W Bush. It became very clear with his assault on the Clinton White House, and later his tendency to pick fights with Naomi Klein, Cindy Sheehan, and George Galloway. It wasn't enough for them to be wrong; they had to be guilty. They had to have irritating names, bile-inducing tics, repellent features. Likewise, his political loyalties were hugely sentimentalised. His pathetic eulogies for Paul Wolfowitz and Ahmed Chalabi are of a piece with the more plausible but still sentimental depictions of old comrades, who would have despised what he became. What explains it? I think in part he had a preference for the visceral over the abstract, a suspicion of the overly rational as opposed to the sensuous. I also think it was part of his competitive nature. As a middle class Englishman, he was acutely aware of hierarchy, and constantly evaluating himself relative to others. It was a source of constant unease for him. I think he either had to prove that he was in all essential ways superior to others, or resort to abject deference.
In his later years Hitchens became perhaps best known for his aggressive critique of theistic religion. Why do you think this became such an important topic for him at this stage of life, and what do you make of his claim to have been in agreement with Marx regarding religion?
I think it's important to say that this is one aspect of Hitchens's personality that had been visible early on, but which assumed an enlarged role in his last years. And it had nothing to do with Marx. If you read his essay from Harper's in 1982 on The Lord and the Intellectuals, it is an attack on left-wing tolerance for religious ideas ostensibly on the basis of what Marx wrote. But it seriously travestied Marx as saying that religion touches a "chord of credulity" in us all – meaning, I suppose, that it appeals to a human instinct for transcendence. This was not Marx's view at all. In saying that religion was the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the spirit of spiritless conditions, he drew attention to the social relations in which religious beliefs were formed. A condemnation of religion must therefore be a condemnation of the social reality that produced it, otherwise it was futile. Hitchens genuinely didn't care for this. In his writing on Rushdie, where you begin to see some of his impatience with others left-wing intellectuals take on an important role, he suggested that religion had a life of its own, independently of material circumstances.
In his later writing, particularly in God is Not Great, he kept to this view. Religion was not so much a labour of meaning determined within a social context; rather it was the root of all evil. The 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland, the Lebanese Civil War, the Israel-Palestine war, the failure of the occupation of Iraq, and a whole list of worldly ills could be blamed on the Almighty. Accompanying this litany was an amateurish hermeneutics of the great religious texts, filled with error and pointmissing pedantry. Essentially, he advanced a highly reductionist interpretation of social problems as being caused by religion, which in turn was subject to a highly reductionist and literalist interpretation. By thus deducing social ills from a set of stable, unvarying ideas, he rejected a materialist reading of religion in favour of a theological reading of reality.
The political impetus behind all this should be clear. If one insisted that the September 11 attacks had nothing to do with US foreign policy, it made sense to blame them on religion. If the US invasion of Iraq was a noble adventure of liberation, then its failure could be most conveniently attributed to religion. If indeed one was abandoning a serious analysis of empire, as Hitchens did, then all these dreary wars in the colonial backwaters like Ireland or Palestine must have to do with the backward ideas of the inhabitants. Moreover, it is symptomatic that this book, God is Not Great, was Hitchens's best-selling book, the one that really made him. In the US context, it made something of a dissident out of him, an enemy of the religious Right, even while he pandered to the most conventional, bourgeois and even racist forms of thought.
How did Hitchens react to the Arab Spring?
It's necessary to point to what Hitchens had been doing before the Middle East revolutions. The first such revolt was in Tunisia. About four years before, Hitchens had visited the country and written an extremely gentle appraisal of the country's political system. He admired its way of killing Islamists, its role in the 'war on terror', the relative secularism of the regime. And in a typically Kiplingesque contrast, he situated it somewhere between Europe and Africa, culturally and psychologically. It was exotic without being foreign, if you like. When the revolt actually happened, he was certainly in favour of it, but also just a little bit defensive. He was worried that the Islamists would be empowered, as indeed they have been. And he suggested, stupidly, that the reason people rebelled was because they knew they could: in other words, they wouldn't be drowned in blood like the Green Movement in Iran. It's invidious to make such comparisons, but since he did it is worth noting that comparatively greater numbers of people were killed in the Tunisian uprising.
Likewise, Hitchens welcomed the revolution in Egypt, but was strikingly condescending about it. He admired the force of the uprising, but claimed that Egyptian society was unlettered in the ways of civil society organising, and again warned about the demon Islamists taking control. It was really not until the revolution in Libya was in trouble that he began to see an opportunity for a different perspective. Here, the US could intervene, redeem its earlier failures, win back lost support, and really clobber a no-good nuisance. Even as he acknowledged that the Libyan opposition was (at that point) not in favour of invasion, he insisted that the US also had rights in this situation, in light of Qadhafi's past WMD crimes. It is worth noting that this is standard neoconservative bluster: the regime had never acquired weapons of mass destruction, and its decision to 'give up' its germinal 'weapons programmes' had really been a final stage in a negotiations process in which it had sought to come out from the cold. In the case of the Iranian regime, he had blustered that the US should invade even if the population wouldn't support it, on the same grounds of asserting the rights of the 'international community'. He would tell the Iranians, we're doing you a favour and we won't stay long, cry all you want. This disturbingly colonial view indicated what the Middle East rebellions really signalled for Hitchens – an opportunity to morally and politically re-arm US imperialism.
What was the experience of writing the book like? How did you find immersing yourself in Hitchens' oeuvre?
Well, I got bloody sick of reading Christopher Hitchens. He was at his best a very fine writer, and a real pleasure to read. But he was not always at his best, to put it mildly. In fact, when you traverse his oeuvre you begin to see how repetitive and predictable he could be, as well as how contradictory. The same one-liners stop being funny; the inexplicable contradictions start to be frustrating.
Perhaps as interesting as Hitchens's writings was talking to his old comrades, colleagues and friends. I wanted to speak to a lot more people, but I think I got enough gossip to stop this from being just a politically correct attack: it is a politically correct attack with some real dirt in it. There was one point in writing this where I thought I would need to do a lot of detective work, to fill in biographical blanks. But that was distracting me from the purpose, which was a political analysis of Hitchens and his writing. As a result, I left some promising seams un-mined: there is plenty left for a would-be biographer to do.
Richard Seymour is the author of the popular blog Lenin's tomb and the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder and The Meaning of David Cameron.