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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Going it alone: Christopher Hitchens and the death of the Left

Going it alone: Christopher Hitchens and the death of the Left

Book Review: Cottee, Simon and Thomas Cushman (eds.). Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 11 | March 2009


If it did not come to end in 1989, as conservative critic Francis Fukuyama expected, this is because, in Hegel's sense, as freedom's self-realization in time, History had already ceased. Long before the new geopolitical configurations and institutional forms of the post-Soviet world, a new and unprecedented, though scarcely recognized, political situation had taken shape: The last threads of continuity connecting the present with the long epoch of political emancipation were severed. In the second half of the 20th century the history that stretched back through modern socialism and the labor movement to the Enlightenment and the bourgeois revolutions that came before, became bunk. Yet, unlike Stalinism's well-publicized (if exaggerated) collapse, the passing of History and the death of the long-ailing Left in our time has passed almost wholly unnoticed and unmourned. One exception to this is found in the writings of journalist and public intellectual Christopher Hitchens, which, though they sometimes express it only unconsciously and symptomatically, nevertheless very often register awareness of the unprecedented circumstance that is the death of the Left.

When Hitchens publicly broke with the The Nation in the aftermath of 9/11, the break was based on chiefly moral grounds. The Left's anti-war arguments were, Hitchens argued, "contemptible" and in "bad faith"; its authors were corrupt "masochists" [104-8]. While Hitchens's defection was widely condemned by the Left, few attended closely to the moral form that it took, which is in many ways as revealing as the substance of the debates it occasioned. In Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left [hereafter CHHC], editors Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman provide a handy single-volume introduction to Hitchens's tussle with the Left during those years, supplying both an ample selection of Hitchens's writings and published interviews, as well as many criticisms by his erstwhile comrades. Through them we relive something of the disorientation and struggle for clarification on the Left that accompanied 9/11 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Though in some respects a replay of debates around western intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s, far more engaging is the near total discrediting of the existing Left that Hitchens has accomplished writing as a moralist since.

Enlightenment on the Left

A scourge of the establishment, Hitchens was one of the few journalists steeped in Marxism publishing in the mass circulation English press during the 1980s and 90s. Coming out of the International Socialist tendency of British Trotskyism, Hitchens did not simply admire Marx or sympathize with certain historical achievements of the socialist Left; rather, he brought to the pages of The New Statesman, Harper's and The Atlantic the unique resources of a sectarian Marxist political education. With the familiarity he possessed of its prevailing intellectual habits and dispositions and also of the actual composition of the various popular front organizations that sprung up to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hitchens possessed unique resources to undertake a thoroughgoing critique of the contemporary Left. It is the limitations of these same resources, however, that ultimately diminished the force of that critique. For while Hitchens was correct in his assessment of the conservative and one-sided character of the "leftist" critique of American hegemony, it was chimerical to imagine that one could both side with the Bush regime's war and, at the same time, retain critical independence from it.

Taking the last ten years together, Hitchens has been remarkably prolific, producing a steady output of books and articles. This impressive written output has gained Hitchens a mass audience, further expanded by the steady schedule he maintains of television and radio appearances, as well as high-profile public debates. Neither specialized scholar nor think-tank wonk, Hitchens is a rare breed: one who lives not simply by his writing, but by a sustained attempt to analyze the present. By concentrating on the years 2001-2005, Hitchens and His Critics offers a valuable selection of writings from the time when Hitchens began to do what he does entirely freeform, that is with total independence from party or clique.

To describe Hitchens's writings in CHHC as acts of "apostasy" from the Left is misleading. It is better to read them as authentic, if inadequate, responses to the intractability of contemporary circumstances. Out of their recognition of this, editors Cottee and Cushman locate Hitchens not among the God-that-failed liberals, but rather "in the tradition of Marx and the Frankfurt School." As they explain: "It is our belief that in Hitchens's recent political writings it is possible to discern one of the most powerful self-critiques of the Western Left today. Hitchens is. . . an essential reference point for the Left, and his criticisms demand to be engaged with" [3-4]. While one might balk at the phrase "Western Left" as foreign to Hitchens's internationalist disposition, Cottee and Cushman are undoubtedly correct in pointing out that Hitchens did not so much abandon the Left, as he was abandoned by it.

Still, Cottee and Cushman's introduction generates as much confusion as clarity respecting Hitchens's leftism. For while Hitchens cannot but mourn the collapse of the revolutionary Left, insofar as it stood for the abolition of capitalist social domination and the realization of human freedom, his editors lack this understanding of the Left's fundamental commitments. So, it is hard to see how they as non-Marxists can even comprehend Hitchens when he says, "there is no longer a general socialist critique of capitalism - certainly not the sort of critique that proposes an alternative or a replacement. . . . [Still] I don't think that the contradictions, as we used to say, of the system are by any means all resolved" [169]. The sense Hitchens expresses here of the collapse of the Left is true now in a way that was not the case even for those who survived into the 1940s. Though certainly the first-generation Frankfurt School theorists recognized that the rise and consolidation of Stalinism and fascism in Europe prepared the ground for it, the total extinction of the Left had to wait till the second half of the 20th century. With unmistakable melancholy if not nostalgia Hitchens says, "I am in a strong position to promise you. . . [that] all talk [of a Trotskyist revival] is idle. It's over" [181]. Just as they can imagine Jürgen Habermas's liberalism to represent a continuation of the Frankfurt School's mid-century project, Cottee and Cushman treat "the Left" as if it were a stable political category. Hitchens, on the other hand, makes no claim that he represents an alternative form of Leftism. Instead, as he says, "call me a neo-conservative if you must: anything is preferable to the rotten unprincipled alliance between the former fans of the one-party state and the hysterical zealots of the one-god one" ["At Last Our Lefties See the Light" The Times of London online edition, 4/30/06].

Breaking Left

Viewed in retrospect, Hitchens's break with the Left may be seen to have been foreshadowed by his 1990s tirades against Bill Clinton and his "lesser evilist" liberal supporters. In those polemics, Hitchens argued in effect that social democracy had utterly collapsed and, with it, so had the political salience of the distinction between the Democrats and Republicans. The Clinton presidency represented the triumph of fully managed, poll-driven, and lobbyist-directed politics. This failure of parliamentary democracy was accompanied by intellectual vulgarization and moral degradation. Changes such as these were not wholly explicable in their own terms, but were after effects of the Left's collapse. But this last point Hitchens never made explicit. For this reason the 90s writings fail to register fully his dawning sense that what had occurred was an epochal shift, though this can be seen in the gradual alteration of Hitchens's tone from that of political analysis proper to something more akin to 19th century moralism. Even prior to 9/11 Hitchens could remark, "I don't have allegiances. . . anymore" [173]; but, because of the indirection of targeting Clinton rather than his Left supporters, writings from this period are only a prelude to what would come later.

In the weeks and months following 9/11, Hitchens's criticism of what passes for the Left resounded loudly on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether in left-leaning organs such as The Nation and the Guardian or in more mainstream outlets like the Los Angeles Times and The Independent, in article after article Hitchens drove the point home that the issue of "imperialism," as understood for decades on the Left, had ceased to be relevant. The enemies of American imperialism in no sense represented a more democratic future, nor would their victory be likely to indirectly produce politically desirable effects. Making the stakes plain, Hitchens asseverated, "capitalism, for all its contradictions, is superior to. . . what bin Laden and the Taliban stand for" [55]. As for U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Hitchens supplements the arguments about al-Qaeda's Islamist fascism with arguments drawn from Iraqi Trotskyist Kanan Makiya to the effect that Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime was not merely tyrannical but represented a variety of modern-day "totalitarianism." Hitchens then adds to this the assertion that when, in the aftermath of the 1991 war, it left Saddam's opponents in the lurch, the U.S. saddled itself with a "responsibility" to the people of Iraq. He condemned as both untenable and ill-conceived the continued enforcement of no-fly zones and a crippling sanctions regime. These punished the population while allowing Hussein to maintain his hold on power. Of course, nothing could be more predictable than the U.S. Army "failing" to fight Hitchens's war in Iraq (nor could greater "pressure" from the Left have prompted it to do so). Still, the American military, as Hitchens pointed out in a debate with Tariq Ali, was "not militarily defeatable" in Iraq and "all moral and political conclusions to be drawn from that should be drawn" []. Hitchens's support for the war was, of course, opportunistic. But, as CHHC demonstrates, it served an important purpose -- it distanced him once and for all from the pseudo-Left.

Taking up cudgels against the likes of Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, bell hooks, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, Oliver Stone, Studs Terkel, and Howard Zinn, Hitchens recognized that Ba'athist Iraq's steady disintegration and the emergence into plain view of Islamist fascism posed for such "leftists" a dilemma they could not resolve. The War on Terror is not Vietnam II. The character of the enemy of American imperialism is utterly changed as is the geo-political environment within which the conflict takes place. Yet, despite this crucial recognition, Hitchens does not possess critical resources the others lack. For, contrary to what he suggests, Hitchens's support of America's invasion of Iraq is no straightforward act of solidarity with secular-socialist political parties inside Iraq, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jalal Talabani. Still, his repeated insistence on the plight of the Kurds under Saddam did serve to effectively dramatize the disappearance of Left internationalism. "When I first became a socialist," he writes,

[...] the imperative of international solidarity was the essential if not defining thing, whether the cause was popular or not. I haven't seen an anti-war meeting all this year [2002] at which you could even guess at the existence of the Iraqi and Kurdish opposition to Saddam, an opposition that was fighting for "regime change" when both Republicans and Democrats were fawning over Baghdad as a profitable client and geopolitical ally. [105]

Those on the Left who tacitly defended Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein did so because of an inherited moral and intellectual rot. A consequence of this was that "instead of internationalism, we find among the Left now a sort of affectless, neutralist, smirking isolationism" [108], one manifestation of which was the anti-war movement's willingness to bracket out of consideration the fate of Iraqi Leftist or oppositionist parties and trade unions, if not to condemn them outright as U.S. "stooges." For their part, groups like the ISO and Spartacist League,  by simply dusting off the slogans of earlier struggles, ignore the historical gulf that separates the current anti-war movement from, say, the movement that opposed the Vietnam War. The claims of such groups that, as they would put it, blows struck against American imperialism are blows in the interests of workers and the oppressed worldwide, have become unmeaning mantras by the muttering repetition of which such groups on the left withdraw into insensibility. Others on the Left are more vulgar, hoping that an Iraqi quagmire would allow for the emergence of Europe as a substantial counter-hegemonic force (as, for instance, in Habermas and Derrida's joint letter of May 31, 2003). Regarding such Leftism, Hitchens remarks, "I am very much put in mind of something from the opening of Marx's Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. It's not the sentence about the historical relation between tragedy and farce. It's the observation that when people are learning a new language, they habitually translate it back into the one they already know" [55]. Unable to so much as describe the present, the Left has lost its currency for an entire generation. "Members of the Left, along with the far larger number of squishy 'progressives,' have grossly failed to live up to their responsibility to think; rather, they are merely reacting, substituting tired slogans for thought" [57]. Today's conservative leftism, with a long pedigree stretching back into the 1960s, first became dominant by couching itself in anti-imperialist language. But, as Hitchens comments, "My Marxist training tells me things don't remain the same. [These new, openly] reactionary-left positions won't hold for long. They will metamorphose into reactionary-right ones" ["'Don't Cross Over if You Have any Intention of Going Back'" Interview with Danny Postel The Common Review 4:1, 7]. The merits of this critique stand, regardless of Hitchens's position on the Iraq War.

Rejecting the consensus view that the 1960s New Left represents a high-water mark of radical politics, Hitchens argues that, in fact, the conservativism of today's pseudo-Left derives from precisely that period:

If you look back to the founding document of the 60's left, which was the Port Huron statement . . . you will easily see that it was in essence a conservative manifesto. It spoke in vaguely Marxist terms of alienation, true, but it was reacting to bigness and anonymity and urbanization, and it betrayed a yearning for a lost agrarian simplicity. It forgot what Marx had said, about the dynamism of capitalism and ''the idiocy of rural life.''

All that endures today on "the Left" is precisely this anti-modern strain of the 1960s. Describing the route from Port Huron to Seattle, Hitchens notes, "the anti-globalization movement has started to reject modernity altogether, to set its sights on laboratories and on the idea of the division of labor, and to adopt symbols from Fallujah as the emblems of its resistance" ["Where Aquarius Went," New York Times (online edition) 12/19/04]. If we are in politically dire straits, this is not because the New Left betrayed the ideals of its youth, but because it upheld them. Hitchens captures the massive political and intellectual shift this has occasioned anecdotally: "Marx and Engels thought that America was the great country of freedom and revolution. . . [We] live in a culture where people's first instinct when you say [that] is to laugh or to look bewildered" [176-77]. After years of Pop-Front coziness with his "comrades" in "the movement," Hitchens finally broke rank. And yet, Hitchens's defeat of his "Left" opponents, of which CHHC leaves its reader no doubt, never translated into what we might call a genuine political victory.

Hitchens's Marxism

The force of Hitchens's critique of the degenerate Left in the wake of 9/11 derives in large measure, as argued above, from his sectarian background which imparted to him a deep aversion to uncritical solidarity. It is this that lends his account its force. In other words, it is not simply a matter of familiarity breeding contempt, but of the precision that comes from long study of the enemy. And yet, the instincts that allow him to register his insights soon come up against their own limits. For the current crisis requires an active (and openly skeptical) re-engagement with the history of the Left and the theoretical categories of Marxism.

Hitchens's greatest shortcoming is not the position he has taken on Iraq, as this amounts chiefly to a confession of political futility. Nor is it his bullying and hectoring tone, which, though it occasionally rings false, is typically reserved for those who deserve it. Rather, his greatest shortcoming is in his sclerotic Marxism, which is very often conceptually under-specified and indistinguishable from ahistorical liberalism. For what Hitchens terms the "tenets of the Left" require us only to recognize the truth of certain propositions, such as "there are opposing class interests" and "monopoly capitalism can and should be distinguished from the free market and that it has certain fatal tendencies" (Letters to a Young Contrarian [hereafter LYC], 102). But, there is nothing specifically Marxist about these or any such propositions outside of dialectical analysis.

Discussing the anti-Stalinist Marxists of the 1930s, Hitchens says "these heroes. . . were forced to rely as much on their own consciences, if not indeed more, as on any historical materialist canon" [LYC 98]. But the likes of C. L. R. James, Victor Serge, and Trotsky are not merely moral exemplars, and the "crimes" to which they bore witness were not simply criminal. Stalin's betrayals were political betrayals opposed politically by a Marxism rooted in a definite conception of capitalism as a form of social organization. Any full account must go beyond discussing the bravery of these tendencies to address that their emancipatory potential. Hitchens exhorts readers to question the obvious and the status quo, for which, he argues, intellectual honesty and a will to truth alone are required. While this is true as far as it goes, it only goes so far. Morality and "principles" alone, including "the conception of universal human rights" to which he points as guiding "the next phase or epoch" of Leftist politics are an inadequate basis on which to remount the sort of emancipatory politics to which Hitchens is unmistakably committed [LYC 136].

Hitchens's etiolated conception of Enlightenment (under which rubric he subsumes Marxist "historical materialism") causes him to fall below the level of his own insights. This can most readily be seen by a brief review of Hitchens's 2002 treatment of George Orwell, Why Orwell Matters [WOM]. This book's publication coincided with and may be seen as explicating much of the basis for his criticism of his former comrades. Hitchens's Orwell, it is safe to say, stands in for the Trotskyism that came so late to Britain, where most of those who would become the beacons of the New Left did not actually break with Stalinism in Trotsky's lifetime but much later, after the 1956 Hungarian uprising was crushed by the Soviet Union. Orwell was "in contact with the small and scattered forces of the independent international Left" and this fact, that he questioned Stalinism at a time in the history of the British Left when it was extremely unpopular to do so, is central to why Orwell matters to Christopher Hitchens [WOM, 62]. As a fellow traveler of "the International of persecuted oppositionists who withstood 'the midnight of the century' - the clasping of hands of Hitler and Stalin" [WOM, 63], Orwell was a confirmed leftist critic of the Left from at least the time of his fighting on behalf of the Spanish Republic, which he chronicled in his early work, Homage to Catalonia. Nor did Orwell ever discard the commitments and insights that crystallized for him while fighting in Spain, since in his late work Animal Farm "the aims and principles of the Russian revolution are given face-value credit throughout: this is a revolution betrayed, not a revolution that is monstrous from its inception" [WOM 187]. Thus, while "the edifice of [Orwell's] work. . . [is typically] identified with sturdy English virtues" [WOM, 63], it constitutes for Hitchens an internationalist legacy far more valuable than that of many figures more widely lionized on the British Left, where the New Left intellectuals' struggle to work through the fraught legacy of the past was hobbled by the relatively superficial de-Stalinization after 1956. Hitchens skewers Raymond William's hatchet job on Orwell as symptomatic of precisely an undigested Stalinism that then also affected the New Left Review's editors, who in their reverence toward Williams in the 1960s, failed to theoretically work through the struggles on the Left of the 1930s.

But Hitchens, too, fails to work through the history of the left. On the one hand, he is adamant that we regard as a victory for the anti-Stalinist New Left the Velvet Revolutions that brought to an end "actually existing socialism" in the former Warsaw Pact countries. On the other hand, he recognizes that "once the Cold War was over, there was a recrudescence of. . . totalitarianism and. . . authoritarianism" ["'Don't Cross Over if You have any Intention of Going Back,'" 7]. It is altogether unclear just how Hitchens can view the 1990s as simultaneously a culminating revolutionary moment and as a period of the revival of totalitarianism. Here is no dialectical antinomy, just a flat contradiction.

Retreat to moralism

The insights Hitchens develops respecting the history of the Left with reference to Orwell are valuable and, in many instances, merit further elucidation. The difficulty arises in trying to address such matters in the moral terms on which Hitchens bases his analysis, as for instance when Hitchens attempts to characterize the European fascism of the 1930s and 40s in terms of "arrogance," "bullying," "greed," "wickedness," and "stupidity" [WOM, 7]. Such moral and intellectual flaws have, after all, plagued humankind throughout its history, and for this reason they provide an inadequate basis for conceptualizing something so distinctly and exclusively modern as fascism. Similarly, leftist politics, while it may be rooted at the individual level in a certain moral impulse, can never be guided by that impulse alone. While Hitchens's expressions of moral disapproval are in themselves unobjectionable and indeed often rhetorically powerful, they hardly suffice as categories of political analysis. For such analysis requires a theoretical grasp of social and historical circumstances, the abstract character of which necessitates theory. As Hitchens himself acknowledges, "I became a socialist . . . [as an] outcome of studying history" [168]. In other words, Marxian theory is necessary to actually grasp the ongoing transformation of society. The power of facing unpleasant facts that Hitchens associates with Orwell is scarcely sufficient if the aim is to elaborate a politics rooted in a critical grasp of the present. Hitchens knows full well that "a purely moral onslaught on capitalism and empire would be empty sermonizing" ["The Grub Street Years," The Guardian 6/16/07], and yet he seems to think an increasingly moral rhetoric to be adequate for contemporary critical purposes.

Stefan Collini (in a 2003 essay unfortunately omitted from the volume under review) is no doubt right to balk (or chuckle) at the machismo of the ostentatiously hard-drinking, chain-smoking, author of pieces like "Why Women Aren't Funny." But, what is curious is the evidence of Hitchens's masculinism that Collini adduces, namely his commitment to being "right about which way the world . . . is going, right about which policies will work and which regimes are wicked; right about the accuracy of one's facts and one's stories; and right when so many others, especially well-regarded or well-placed others, are demonstrably wrong" [Stefan Collini, "'No Bullshit' Bullshit" London Review of Books 25:2 (1/23/03), online edition]. If Hitchens fails in his attempts to understand which way the world is going, it is scarcely because of the masculinist folly of the enterprise, nor, indeed, because of the limitations of his talent, intellect or instincts, but because the world itself has become opaque. This, and the impulse toward being right -- at least against the "Left" -- is what has led Hitchens to shill for the American warmongers. The old habit of choosing sides betrays Hitchens when the task requires more than simply making compromises and choosing the lesser evil, but actually critically confronting a situation in which there is nothing to choose. While Collini's chastising as "masculinist" Hitchens's commitment to being right when so many others are politically wrong amounts to little more than the imposition of a thought-taboo, it is nevertheless undeniable that, for the present, the formulation of "a political line" is impossible. This is because of "the world's" incoherence when the Left is dead. Hitchens's polemics would seem to imply an independent position, but the impossibility of this is precisely where the contemporary circumstance of the death of the left must be registered.

Hitchens's "return" to moralism in the 1990s and 200s is coupled with a nascent sense of historical regression, which he understands as a return to the Enlightenment and a replay of bourgeois revolution. Thus Hitchens's most recent writings on the Enlightenment, American Revolution, and atheism stem from his sense of the need for a renewal of "the war for Enlightenment values" [213]. As early as 2002 Hitchens wrote, "as the third millennium gets under way, and as the Russian and Chinese and Cuban revolutions drop below the horizon, it is possible to argue that the American revolution, with its promise of cosmopolitan democracy, is the only 'model' revolution that humanity has left to it" [WOM 105]. But, in the works that grew out of this conviction published after 2005, Hitchens flattens out much of what remained suggestive in the polemical writings contained in CHHC. For instance, in his recent non-fiction best-seller God is Not Great, Hitchens improbably portrays the struggle against contemporary religious fascisms as a mere continuation of the Enlightenment tussle with irrationality. As if al-Qaeada's "medievalism" were a relic of the unscientific feudal past! At this point, rationality surrenders to dogma in the name of the Enlightenment and Hitchens's recognition of political regression threatens to transform itself into the idée fixe of a crank who has forgotten that the argument with religion is the beginning, not the end, of the ruthless criticism of everything existing. Adopting a more sympathetic approach towards these more recent works requires reading them against the grain to argue not only that the self-described left today is entirely past saving and needs only to be retired, but also that the project of re-constituting the left today may be advanced more through an engagement with those drawn to (and encountering the limits of) liberalism than with the sleep-walkers that today pass for the Left. |P