(Also on LeftCentral)
“More Bosnia, less Iraq”. So went a text sent by Christopher Hitchens, who died from cancer last week, to Stephen Fry in late November. Fry was orchestrating a make-shift discussion at the Royal Festival Hall with Hitchens’ more famous friends on his ‘loves and hates’, with Hitch himself following online after falling too ill to participate. As George Eaton noted, at an event which already eerily felt like the dry run of a funeral service, it seemed like Hitchens was trying to edit the first draft of his own obituary.
Alas, to no avail, it would appear from reading much of the reaction since Friday. But if it’s fitting that Hitchens died in the same week as the Iraq war came to a formal end, then it’s no less so that he went in the same week as Vaclav Haval, the great Czech dissident who authored his countries’ overthrow of Communism. For whatever one thinks of his position on Iraq (and I disagree with it), Hitchens leant his vociferous support for the war with the same logic as he did to Haval and intervention in Bosnia, and it must be reckoned with on that basis.
Indeed as is often the case, what made Hitchens such a great writer was the same as that which made him such a great thinker. That is, pure moral clarity. He was an absolutist, to the point of utopianism, about totalitarianism and tyranny. He approached all debates from this perspective alone. No excuses or equivocations, no relativism or self-doubt – and it showed in the beautifully sure flow of his writing and argument. He never wasted a word. He was funny. And above all else, he loved the fight. Watching him marshal his points in a debate, duck and weave, taunt and torment his hapless opponent, was like watching Mohammed Ali at his pomp.
Yet he rarely appeared shrill or just provocative, because his brand of Manichianism came supported by a formidable grasp of human history, culture and politics. He could reach deep into the annuls of literature or history and pull out an obscure reference or anecdote that would light up his argument, often instantly putting his opponent on the wrong side of the debate. He has many impersonators who mimic his style, but who without the substance show themselves up as pointless provocateurs, usually in slave to some private-school boy prejudice or other (see Douglas Murray, James Delinhpole, Oliver Kamm; perhaps even Martin Amis, for anyone who’s read The Second Plane).
Certainly, he was no more infallible than the rest of us. His rhetoric could slip into saloon-bar boorishness, and he often took too much pride in disregarding the full policy implications of the positions he would take (“I rather tended to assume that things of [the] more practical sort were being taken care of”). But we desperately need writers like Christopher Hitchens: rootless, belligerent, informed idealists. Authors who can file a well-researched despatch on some obscure going-on from around the world, but beautifully locate its place within the broader battles of human good against evil. People who see, as Haval put it, “politics as morality in practice.”
Even when you disagree with Hitchens, writers of his ilk make you work like no other, in your own mind, to justify it. They hold our feet to the fire, shaking us from the comfort of our certainties, stopping us from getting so mired in nuance, ‘contextual’ or ‘structural’ explanations – so blinded by our own predilections – that we excuse and euphemise crimes visited upon those we should call friends.
It’s this which defined his split with many leftists, one which opened up long before Iraq. Hitchens consistently skewered those who too often couldn’t get out from under their own ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘anti-racism’ to show solidarity with victims of regimes and ideologies hitherto understood only as virtuous bulwarks against Western hegemony. In order to patch up the resulting tears in their neat worldviews, some on the left consistently proved willing to trash as ‘stooges’ dissidents who fell out with the wrong people. From the anti-Soviet intellectuals in Eastern Europe, Rushdie, the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians, all the way up to Aayan Hirsi Ali – Hitchens was at his best when agitating on their behalf, reminding us that sometimes “The very first step that we must take is the acquisition of enough self-respect and self-confidence to say that we have met an enemy and that he is not us, but someone else.”
Hitchens kept the Trotskyite stridency of his youth but – amid the evaporation of the Soviet Union – stripped out the materialism and replaced it with culture, namely the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis. Writing of his reaction to September 11th, he said: “It was exhilaration…. Here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side, the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, the skeptical, and the cosmopolitan…On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism. I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so interesting.”
If his principled support of abandoned dissidents proved the worth of this framing – of seeing “politics as morality in practice” – then ultimately Iraq seemed to show the pitfalls. Perhaps coagulated in the furnace of debate around the war, his stridency was re-cast into dogma as he ended up equating support for Kurds and Iraqi trade unionists with support for the Bush administration’s misadventure. More than this, he came to see the conflict as a continuation of the interventions of the 1990s, filtering out their substantive differences – not least who was undertaking it, and for what reasons. So in thrall with the romanticism of the fight against Saddam, he neglected the complex, real-world politics of sectarianism and tribalism which were to engulf post-invasion Iraq.
One final consequence worth noting of Hitchens’ journey from materialism was his almost complete absence, in his later years, from the debate over economic and social questions. What did he think of the downfall of Lehman Brothers? Of the sub-prime mortgage boon? Of Greece? Or even the healthcare debate in the U.S? Here we missed his voice, but like many a 68′er who had accepted ‘the end of history’, he had rather left behind the tools with which to make sense of the tumult in modern capitalism.
Nevertheless, for most of his life, Hitchens helped define a generation of political debate. There was, you might say, something of the Arthur Koestler about him. On the surface he could appear a dilettante, bumping from cause to cause, fight to fight, exchanging various visions of utopia along the way. Ultimately he was more substantive than Koestler, and a better writer. Like him, however, Hitchens’ journey and the mosaic of arguments he had with himself and others comes together to tell the story of our time. Over the fall of the Soviet Union, liberal interventionism, 9/11, Iraq, Islamic extremism and religion. His famous head-to-head in New York with George Galloway in 2005 is etched on the mind of an entire flock of young people who came of political consciousness around the time of the ‘war on terror’.
Hitchens didn’t just take part in the battle of ideas; he was defined by it. He was there, he lived it; helped shape it. That is the essence of a true public intellectual, and it’s a struggle to think of a writer alive who can hope to match up to his importance. We will feel the weight of his absence for a long time to come.