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What Christopher Hitchens left behind

This is a cross-post from Obliged to Offend

There is no longer any such thing as a radical left. That was what Christopher Hitchens said in an interview with the journalist Rhys Southan in 2001 on the topic of radicalism in a post-socialist world. According to Hitchens, the left was now a conservative rather than an emancipatory force, and it was this, rather than any clichéd shuffle to the right, which resulted in Hitchens no longer identifying with the political left.

While the time to pen glowing tributes or fierce denunciations of the man has probably passed, it still feels rather too early to be assessing any broad “legacy” Hitchens may (or may not) have left behind. For one thing, many of the arguments he contested remain unresolved. Iran is on the way to acquiring a nuclear weapon and the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad continues to mow-down the green shoots of democratic rebellion with AK47s. Calls for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan (and to hell with the consequences) reverberate around almost every “progressive” march on London; and religion continues, as always, to demand a level of “respect” undeserving of any “faith-based” doctrine.

Everything, as someone once said, is still left to play for.

There is good reason, however, to discuss one of the ideas which animated the politics of Christopher Hitchens during his final decade: his belief that the main ideological war in the 21st century would be fought between those who did and those who did not believe the citizen should be the property of religion or the state. When it came to the right of people in far-away lands to pursue happiness, it was this idea, as opposed to the tendency of portions of the left to place “anti-imperialism” above opposition to dictatorship, which led Hitchens to abandon former comrades for forces willing to support the overthrow of tyrants. Hitchens’s politics may indeed have changed as he grew older, and the parties he chose to align himself with in later years may not have been as concerned with liberating people as he once imagined; but it was the left, rather than Hitchens, whose international outlook became increasingly parochial and conservative after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and this was reflected in its protests, where cries of “troops out” and “no to war” often trumped any opposition to totalitarianism.

In order to understand a little about how this happened, it’s important first of all to recognise that there is no longer a viable socialist critique of capitalism – not that is, a critique which proposes a suitable alternative economic system. This does not mean that one could not exist; rather it means there isn’t an attractive one around at this point in time. Social democratic alternatives, even radical ones, still hold weight (more by the day in fact; for basing an economy on the speculations of the stock market has proven disastrous), but any attempt at introducing more than essential planning to an economy would, as in the past, confront the insurmountable objection that it requires the sort of perfect knowledge that is unattainable to ordinary mortals. Writing about the economic disasters unleashed by Bolshevism almost 100 years ago, Ralph Raico summed things up rather well when he said: “These ‘materialists’ and ‘scientific socialists’ lived in a mental world where understanding Hegel, Feuerbach, and the hideousness of Eugen Duehring’s philosophical errors was infinitely more important than understanding what might be the meaning of a price.”

As a result of its economic ideas being found out, today’s radicals are more often than not defined by what they are against, rather than what they are for. Topping that list, ahead of even capitalism itself, is the United States. Shortly after 9/11, 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”. Further to the left, the Socialist Workers’ Party refused even to condemn the attacks, and instead launched the “Stop the War Coalition” a mere ten days after thousands of people had been murdered. The professed aims of the “coalition”, which mainly consisted of SWP rank and file under the cover of a less overtly noxious brand, were misleading, however, and disguised the fact that the movement was built not to oppose the war Al Qaeda had openly declared on free society, but rather to rally people against any potential Western response. At this point the writing should have been on the wall. However justified Western military action might be, the placards would still come out. A war was only a war if it involved the West. As Hitchens put it in an essay for The Nation at the time: “If there is now an international intervention, whether intelligent and humane, or brutal and stupid, against the Taliban, some people will take to the streets, or at least mount some ‘Candle in the Wind’ or ‘Strawberry Fields’ peace vigils. They did not take to the streets, or even go moist and musical, when the Administration supported the Taliban.”

There can be little doubt that to some of Hitchens’s generation 9/11 was, in their eyes, their very own Orwell moment. Just as Orwell had recognised that civilisation depended on defeating Hitler in the Second World War, many formally of the left were shaken out of any post-Cold War lethargy by the random murder that punctured the New York skyline on that clear September morning. The spectacle of many so-called progressives drawing a false equivalence between John Ashcroft and Osama Bin Laden did the rest, and again would have been all too familiar to Orwell. In a letter written to him in 1942, the poet D. S. Savage assured Orwell that Hitler required, “not condemnation, but understanding”. Similar tropes began to appear in the aftermath of 9/11 in a number of left-liberal publications, with wide-ranging appeals to “understand” the “root causes” of religiously-inspired murder. The possibility of remaining aloof from the struggle with fascism was of course only possible for those living in stable liberal democracies at a great distance from any real danger – those people usually inhabited a very comfortable position within those “democracies” (their brackets, not mine), too.

Hitchens is no longer with us and the stories of Iraq and Afghanistan remain unfinished. It is impossible to predict the post-war trajectory of either of those countries, just as it would be equally futile to try to guess at what would have befallen them had intervention not occurred. Simply reeling off the number of civilian casualties without considering the potential casualties of not going to war, however, betrays little more than a desire not to follow ones’ thoughts beyond the point at which they remain politically convenient. The real answers to questions of this sort will come not from the party-minded, but from those who, as Hitchens himself put it, “insist on thinking for themselves”.

What really illuminates the political path Christopher Hitchens took in his last decade are the struggles of those in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and North Korea, to name but a few, and the relative indifference those struggles summoned and continue to summon in those who once professed solidarity with the oppressed as a first principle. Apart from “no to war”, does anyone know what the left position today is on Syria is, for example? What dictators fear is military force, not chanting in drafty rooms above Islington pubs of “long live the workers”.

To have any relevance to the struggles against tyrannical authority today, the left must get over its obsession with imperialism, an idea based on the antiquated doctrines of long-dead and somewhat unendearing revolutionaries. The alternative is to risk being left behind by history and viewed by the millions who continue to languish under dictatorship as a fringe and irrelevant movement with parochial and remote concerns. It is a fitting time for the left to put the purely abstract away and look real people and their suffering in the face. That is an idea worth keeping, and it is one that was left behind in no small part by Christopher Hitchens.