Monday, November 9, 2015

Reflections on Christopher Hitchens as a Leftist

Christopher Hitchens (1949–2011) passed away in 2011, and he remains one of those iconoclast leftists, who, generally speaking, is either hated or loved. Worse still, it is widely believed that he went over to the right and deserted the left, and there are plenty of left-wing people who loath him for that.

Quite simply, he was a complex intellectual and thinker. There was a good, a bad, and an ugly Hitch. He was capable of holding defensible and right opinions on some issues, and shamefully wrong and indefensible opinions on other issues.

Let us examine these sides to him in the two sections below.

The Bad and Ugly Hitch
First, the bad and ugly Hitchens. There are indeed plenty of things to mention here. For me, one of the worst was his infantile Marxism and Trotskyism, even though it was obvious that by middle age he was not really a serious advocate of communism.

His admiration for Trotsky can be seen in the video below.

Hitchens’ idealistic vision of Trotsky is taken down by Robert Service in his debate with Hitchens in the video below.

But to return to my main point, like so many left-wing intellectuals and especially members of the New Left generation, he obviously thought it was “cool” to be a Marxist, without noticing that self-identifying as a Marxist-Communist is to self-identify oneself with a totalitarian ideology that has proven itself to be a hideous enemy of human freedom.

If you have ever read Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (2003), which contains a powerful challenge to Hitchens on his Marxism, you can see how outrageous and shameful is the Marxist willingness to gloss over the Soviet Union’s crimes and the disgusting apologetics of Marxists for the nightmare that was that state.

Next, Hitchens’ support for the Iraq war. This was his greatest political mistake. His attempts to justify it – especially when it went so badly wrong – brought him to embarrassing depths of dishonesty and sophistry. Of course, he was perfectly capable of making bad arguments at other times too, such as the ad hominem fallacy, but on this issue he made truly terrible arguments for a disgraceful cause.

It was also quite comical to see him in later years trotted out on Fox news to defend George W. Bush and the Iraq war.

His former friends on the left turned against him when he supported the Iraq war and he was of course accused of “selling out” and becoming a conservative or neoconservative.

But, to be fair, there are two points here in response to this: first, does anyone think that if Christopher Hitchens had vehemently opposed the Iraq war that it would not have happened? That the Bush administration would have suddenly decided not to invade? Of course not: Hitchens would have been dismissed as what most of the right thought of him before 2001: a fuming, pompous, Trotskyist atheist idiot.

Secondly, in truth, Hitchens – right to the end – still thought of himself as a leftist, as we see in the video below – albeit as a “Marxist” in a silly, vapid sense.

In essence, he was, politically, a Marxist intellectual poseur. This is clearly the “bad” Hitch: while he did understand (apparently) that the communist world was one of slavery and totalitarianism, he still continued to self-identify as Marxist. That was disgusting.

Finally, I don’t want to be too unfair on this point, because Hitchens at least did recognise that communist economics and a command economy were discredited models, and I presume his support for a broadly market economy was what would be called a social democratic vision. But, at the same time, it is true that Hitchens didn’t understand much about economics, and clearly this wasn’t his strong point.

The Good Hitch
The good Hitchens was a fearless defender of free speech, an opponent of Postmodernism, a journalist who brilliantly deflated the cult of personality of popular figures like Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, and a courageous defender of atheism and secularism. Finally he was utterly unwilling to respect the ridiculous taboos that have grown up in our politically-correct culture about criticising religion, even if, admittedly, he was at times inclined to some over-the-top statements on religious faith.

I think that one of the best of the virtues above was Christopher Hitchens, the defender of free speech, at a time when some people on the left – especially the extreme Postmodernist left – have shamefully shown themselves to be enemies of free speech.

One of his finest defences of free speech is in the video below.

Related to the issue of free speech was Hitchens’ defence – and continued defence to the end – of Salman Rushdie’s freedom of expression when cowardly Western liberals and even some Western religious leaders condemned Rushdie.

Hitchens also wrote cutting and brilliant exposes of cult-like figures in modern popular culture. His critique of Mother Teresa, in particular, demonstrated how so much of what people think they know about Mother Teresa is actually wrong (Hitchens 1995). This is brought out well in the video below, which interviews Hitchens (warning: there is some bad language in this video).

Secondly, Hitchens also opposed the terrible fraud of Postmodernism and its absurd core idea of truth relativism and extreme political correctness. There is a fine attack on Postmodernism in Hitchens’ book Why Orwell Matters (2002), though admittedly it is pity he never spoke out more strongly against it in his public speaking.

Thirdly, Hitchens defended atheism and criticised religion in the finest tradition of the secular left and free thinkers, as can be seen below.

Personally, I think there is a lot in the “good” Hitchens that the modern left could learn from.

So, for all his faults (and often very bad ones), I am happy to celebrate the “good” Hitch. You are missed, and I’ll give you the last word.

Amis, Martin. 2003. Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. Vintage International, New York.

Hitchens, Christopher. 1995. The Missionary Position: The Ideology of Mother Teresa. Verso, London.

Hitchens, Christopher. 2002. Why Orwell Matters. Basic Books, New York.


  1. Of course Hitch remained a Leftist (and one of my favourites of the breed). He had the quaint notion that free men had the right to overthrow brutal tyrants. Once that was an idea the Left bought into, but then free speech was a something Leftists bought into once too.

    Are you feeling the pain of knowing the Left has abandoned all -- and I really do mean pretty much all -- of what once attracted you to it? I can sympathize (not that that will stop my Schadenfreude in the least :>). You know that old saw, hanging around with liberals turned me into a conservative? Hanging around conservatives turned me into a libertarian, and hanging around with Libertarians is turning me into a liberal.

    Hitch, shed of his communism, was an admirable Leftie, and I miss him.

    1. I'm glad you appreciate the Hitch. Your opinion of his strident support of the Iraq war?

      Yes, for me, stripped of his trendy Marxism and warmongering, and if he had some decent knowledge of economics (e.g., advocacy of Keynesianism), he would have been something much closer to a truly great leftist, even a hero -- even though I sort of hesitate to use that word.

      What do you think of his critique of Mother Teresa and religion?

      There is also something deeply admirable about someone who speaks his mind without any fear of offending people. Someone who offended the Marxist-left, Posmodernist-left, politically correct-left, liberal left, religious fanatics of all kinds, anarcho-capitalist-libertarians and even (despite their brief flirtation with him) the mainstream right, man, you have to doing something right. haha

      Some of my other favourite clips of him:

      Damn, I miss him too. Especially when he spoke on religion.


    3. I admire Hitch for his position on the Iraq war. I am not interested in relitigating that. I will say only
      1) I supported it
      2) had I known there were no significant amounts of WMD I would have favored waiting, armed on the border
      3) Hitch's support was based on his views about Saddam Hussein and the rights of free men I mentioned above. Even if you think he was wildly wrong you should be able to respect that motive.
      4 It took guts for Hitch to turn his back on his regular admirers and challenge them so strongly on a major issue. I saw him asked if it bothered him who he was "getting in bed with". His answer was that you can't because then you are judging the issue on affiliation and not the merits. Damn right. (This is what appeals to my right wing friemds about him too.)

      On religion I am not quite with Hitch. His position is "there is not god and its a good thing too." Mine is "there is no god and that's too bad." But I will say he's right about Bob Murphy's or Mohammed Atta's gods. It's really striking how believers like Murphy or Callahan cannot
      I liked his pricking of the MT bubble FWIW.

      So more or less we agree about him.

    4. Very interesting indeed.

      Not sure what MT bubble means.

  2. LK: Google University of Missouri, mizzou, president.
    Ecce sinsitra.

    1. when PC culture bites you in the *ss:

  3. Ugh really? This guy was the worst sort of talking head "pundit intellectual". There was no substance to him. He just took on positions that would generate media coverage. Nothing he said or did was interesting or stimulating. Rather he just engaged in "battles" and people would "take sides" with him or "oppose him" to make themselves feel like they were part of something. It's the exact equivalent in "intellectual circles" as people who follow sports or attend wrestling matches.

    He was a master at this. When people stopped listening to him he would switch up and do something "controversial" like support the Iraq war. People hated him for this. But he didn't care because it got him attention, got him speaking tours and sold books.

    Vulgar and lower order. Hitchens was a master of this - the uneducated ideological troglodyte. Hitchens, like so many "intellectuals" of his type, are a commodity or a product. They sell themselves like prostitutes and should be avoided at all costs.

    1. "This guy was the worst sort of talking head "pundit intellectual". There was no substance to him."

      That is plainly ridiculous. He was an acute critic of popular culture and took courageous stands in support of free speech, even very unpopular ones that got him reviled. He exposed the dishonesty of people around Clinton when the liberal left was fawning over that neoliberal sellout.

      As for him being a "pundit intellectual" that is really only true after he supported the Iraq war, and even then he quickly annoyed his new right-wing fan base by refusing to give up previous sincere beliefs on religion.

      On that topic, your comment also implies he never had any sincere, well-thought out and consistent beliefs that many people on the left and right also hold. This is blatantly untrue.

      "uneducated ideological troglodyte. "

      This makes me think you've never read any books or essays by him.

      Was he a Marxist poseur? Yes. An erstwhile apologist for Trotsky? Yes. Badly wrong on the Iraq war? Yes. Somewhat vulgar and rude in his speech on occasions? Yes.

      But an "uneducated ideological troglodyte"? That is bullsh*t. He was a very learned person and his books show it. He changed some of his core political beliefs in the course of his life quite radically. Hardly the mark of an obstinate ideologue.