Any number of questions popped into my mind whilst reading Hitch-22 – Christopher Hitchens’ recently published memoir – but two in particular kept coming back. The first: was Hitchens really ever “one of us”? The second: would it be easier to convince a Hitchens admirer or one of his mortally hostile “left wing” critics of my politics? Why did these questions keep coming back?
There’s an enviable amount to admire in Hitchens’ journalistic and other written output; some of the positions he defends overlap with most rational socialists’ instinctual sympathies and there are few public figures who take up the polemical cudgels to such entertainingly brutal effect.
But at the same time as being an outspoken critic of fascists old and new, a defender of minority national rights and unrelentingly hostile to religious mysticism of all types, Hitchens has been decisively wrong — and it seems to me, in this book at least, grossly disingenuous — on Bush Jnr, the invasion of Iraq and the ‘’War on Terror’’ more generally.
But Hitchens is no Max Shachtman or one of the numerous but lesser known movement activists of old who ended up in ‘’the wrong camp’’. His political trajectory did not include a long period of organised activism — Hitchens was a student member of the SWP precursor organisation, the International Socialists — but rather a literary sojourn through a series of prestigious liberal publications.
In other respects though, his story does caricature the careers of some in the group of people known as the “New York Intellectuals”: people who went from outspoken support for Trotsky against the show trials and slander, socialist anti-Stalinism against the self-despoiling antics of the Lillian Hellman’s of this world, support for workers’ struggles and the plight of the oppressed and exploited to full-blown apology-mongering for the US during the heights of the Cold War.
These characters concluded, rightly, that the Stalinist regime was reactionary and socially backward as compared to the Western bourgeois democracies. They also believed that against the barbarity of Stalinism and the apparently imminent existential threat it posed, stood one relatively progressive force: American state and imperial power. This assurance in “relative progress” — uncoupled from the socialist ‘’baggage’’ of their pasts — opened the door to a very different political world.
The turning point for Hitchens, as it was for a great many of us, seems to have been the events of September 11 2001, the poisonous nightmare of clerical-fascism. He concluded those groups and individuals who helped organise the slaughter are the mortal enemies of us all.
From the obviously correct assertion that as against the murderers of 9/11 Western democracy is progressive, against the backdrop of expected future attacks by similarly minded killers and the rest, Hitchens and company threw their weight behind the drive to war: in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere — including coordinating meetings, lobbying, glad-handing and schmoozing an already war-hungry administration.
This position is an indication that his past — and any remaining — affinity with socialistic causes was really rather shallow.
Our response to the events of 9/11 shows the contrast:
“In cold-bloodedness, the New York massacre even exceeds its models. We, the socialists, cannot bring back the dead, heal the wounded, or assuage the bereaved. What we can do is understand the conditions which gave rise to the atrocity; see how they can be changed…” (Solidarity, 14 November 2001).
But our article goes on to warn of the need to “…keep a clear critical understanding of the way that the US and other governments will respond.”
We said: “The US government will enact … bombing raids abroad and a clampdown at home. Its aim will be to make a show of retaliation and retribution. It will not and cannot mend the conditions which gave rise to this atrocity, conditions which the US government itself, capitalist and imperialist, has helped to shape. Probably ordinary working people who live in ‘terrorist’ states will be the victims.”
We refused to dump our politics. Where Hitchens polemicised and organised around the idea that the US and her allies could bring democracy and stability to places like Iraq — in advance of any actual evidence and in the face of a rotten record elsewhere — socialists refused to invest their trust and political energies in any such force.
Was 9/11 really a Paul of Tarsus moment for Hitchens or just a quick and easy change of step? Could he really ever have been “one of us”?
In Hitch-22, while reminiscing over a trip to California and the visits he made to a number of picket lines of “very spirited” strikes, Hitchens recalls a meeting with Hal Draper (whom he contemptuously refers to as a “guru”). Here Hitchens professes a “faith in the revival of the working class” but seems a bit disappointed — if not dismissive — of what was exciting Draper at the time — César Chávez’s organising work.
That does not have the allure of other prospects for Hitchens. Despite his one-time membership of the IS and one-time confidence in the working class, Hitchens was never part of the workers’ movement per se.
So when the barbarian atrocities of 9/11 struck, Hitchens — 20 years or more down the road from his meeting with Draper — had nowhere but the Bush administration to turn. It is unsurprising that his account of the journey from liberal journalism to lobbying the Pentagon avoids a full reckoning with the sort of politics you might expect to bother a one-time socialist. He was never “one of us”.
The most moving section of Hitch-22 tells the story of Mark Daily. Daily was “briefly a vegetarian and Green Party member because he couldn’t stand cruelty to animals or to the environment, a student who loudly defended Native American rights”, he was also someone who “challenged a MySpace neo-Nazi in an online debate in which the swastika-displaying antagonist finally admitted the he needed to rethink things.” Daily was also very briefly a soldier serving in Iraq, until he was killed on duty.
According to the Daily family’s account, Mark was inspired to join the US armed forces by Hitchens’ writings. There’s something admirable in this impulse but it’s far out-shadowed by the tragedy that became of the impulse. Out-shadowed also by the fact that the energies and obvious intelligence of someone like Daily could have far better served a different kind of impulse.
I’d like to think that if Daily had stumbled upon the Workers’ Liberty website or found a copy of the American journal New Politics then things could be very different. No amount of effort on Hitchens’ part could convince anyone with a synaptic connection or two of the post-event symmetries of the occupation of Iraq and the war to defend the Spanish revolution from fascists. His efforts to compare the US armed forces to the international volunteers who flocked to Spain is embarrassingly disingenuous in the extreme — all the more so when dealing with Daily’s death.
But what of the many hundreds if not thousands who responded and still respond to the events of 9/11 and the sequence of wars and invasions that followed with a concrete misunderstanding of the world?
Can we reach the “fuck the USA”, “destroy Israel”, “we are Hezbollah” quasi-socialists who fall into the arms of groups like the Socialist Workers Party — the offspring of Hitchen’s International Socialists — and either bunker down or drift off with time? Again, I think with a little effort we can. The evidence? I was one of them.