Monday, 19 September 2011
Christopher Hitchens is no George Orwell
A review of Christopher Hitchens's Arguably
In 1947 George Orwell wrote "every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it."
Today, many right across the political spectrum like to pick and choose from Orwell according to taste, stressing either the democratic, socialist or anti-totalitarian current in his work at the expense of the whole – the resulting "legacy" depending very much upon the political persuasion of who is doing the accounting.
Christopher Hitchens, the one-time darling of the left, has in recent years skirted this same political dividing-line: at once attracting the scorn of former comrades for his alleged shuffle to the right, while in the process gathering a substantial number of followers whose admiration rests almost entirely on the premise of him having "come to his senses". On the surface the nature of Hitchens’s politics depends, in a similar fashion to Orwell's, upon who one is talking to.
Hitchens's latest effort is a collection of essays spanning the last decade on politics, literature and religion. The book comes with an added element of tragedy due to the fact that Hitchens was diagnosed with terminal cancer before he wrote a substantial proportion of it. This may, in fact, be his very last book.
Hitchens's reputation as controversialist par excellence has been cemented in recent years with his repudiation of the left and his articulate opposition to monotheism. Importantly, were Hitchens alone in rejecting conventional left/liberal, post-9/11 politics, his bravado and bluster would likely be much less potent. (Hitchens’s politics were never about posture alone; but one should not underestimate the importance of showmanship to the Hitchens brand). As it happened, there were others on the left who also viewed the attempt on the back of 9/11 to conflate John Ashcroft with Osama Bin Laden as crass moral equivalence; or as Orwell put it 70 years ago, "the argument that half a loaf is no different from no bread at all".
The problem with the notion that Hitchens did the obligatory shuffle to the right, or as David Horowitz puts it (underwhelmingly, considering his own political trajectory), had "second thoughts", is that a substantial proportion of the left really did climb into bed with reaction during this period, and continue to do so whenever a group points AK47s in the direction of the United States and its allies.
This was not confined to the debased remnants of Stalinism, either. The editorial of the liberal-left New Statesman of 17 September, 2001, written by then-editor Peter Wilby, appeared to blame Americans themselves for the 9/11 attacks - for "preferring George Bush to Al Gore and both to Ralph Nader". A few weeks later, the Oxford Academic Mary Beard wrote approvingly in the London Review of Books about the "feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming".
Arguably, however, also shows Hitchens at his dogmatic worst, and at times he resembles Isaac Deutscher's description of the ex-Communist who, having recanted on his previous belief system, is "haunted by a vague sense that he has betrayed either his former ideals or the ideals of bourgeois society," and who "tries to suppress his sense of guilt and uncertainty, or to camouflage it by a show of extraordinary certitude and frank aggressiveness". In Hitchens’s essays on Iraq, as Jonathan Freedland points out, "the absence [of WMD] is deemed not to be evidence of absence but, on the contrary, evidence of the presence of WMDs in the immediate past".
Simply writing Hitchens off as a "Neo Con" would be simplistic and crude, and would fail to do justice to the considerable contribution made by him to the critique of totalitarianism. That being said, he has very little to say on traditional left-wing domestic concerns these days, and it seems increasingly clear, if only by omission, that interventionism is not the only consensus he now uncritically accepts.
In a 2008 interview with Prospect, Hitchens, a man who lives in extremely comfortable surroundings in Washington, showed a thinly-disguised contempt for those whose lives are made bearable by the British benefits system, dismissing it as "little more than Christian charity". In an article for Slate in the aftermath of the UK riots, Hitchens took the establishment line that the unrest was "sheer criminality" (as one Tweeter put it at the time – "yes, we know it is sheer criminality; the question is why are our youngsters sheer criminals?"). While much of the British left is right now mobilising against the greatest cut in living standards in a generation, in the same article Hitchens glibly put "the cuts" in brackets and ridiculed the term as an "all-purpose expression...used for all-purpose purposes".
Without embracing the denunciations of Hitchens that prevail on the far-left, it is perhaps necessary to acknowledge that he no longer much notices the struggles of the working class. If it is not part of the dramatic fight against totalitarianism (which I have no wish to downplay), then it doesn't seem to appear on his radar.
Orwell, in a reply dated 15 November 1943 to an invitation from the Duchess of Atholl to speak for the British League for European Freedom, rejected the invitation on the basis that he didn't agree with their objectives. Acknowledging that what they said was "more truthful than the lying propaganda found in most of the press", he added that he could "not associate himself with an essentially conservative body", that claimed to "defend democracy in Europe" but had "nothing to say about British imperialism". His closing paragraph stated: "I belong to the left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian totalitarianism and its poisonous influence in this country."
Hitchens, like many British journalists of his generation, has spent much of his career in the shadow of Orwell. He has also spent perhaps a small proportion of it waiting for his very own Orwell moment - a moment when he could take on his own side in the way Orwell took on the left over the appeasement of Stalin. The problem for Hitchens, however, is that despite the bluster and fear-mongering (not-to-mention the genuinely repulsive politics of the Jihadi movement), Islamism is not Nazism or Stalinism; and Hitchens, however good his prose may be, is no Orwell. In defending the gains of liberal democracy against its totalitarian enemies, Orwell never dumped his politics.