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.