Hitch, Paine, and Anglo-American Radicalism

by Nat Brown

It was two years ago today that Christopher Hitchens lost his battle with esophageal cancer. “Hitch,” as his friends referred to him, was many things: journalist, literary critic, outspoken atheist, and general man of letters. He wrote memorably and elegantly about a seemingly infinite number of writers, statesmen, and general historical figures over the course of his career.  Among this vast array of subjects, Anglo-American radical Thomas Paine was held in in particularly high esteem; Hitchens would author a book on Paine’s Rights of Man in 2007.

Comparing the two men’s biographies, one notices a remarkable amount in common. Both Hitchens and Paine came to fame through their fiery and powerful rhetoric, both held reputations as notorious drinkers, both had a fervent love for their adopted country, and both ended their careers as staunch critics of religion. While working on his new book about Edmund Burke’s debate with Paine over the French Revolution, author Yuval Levin had a series of conversations with Hitchens on the subject in what would be the final year of Hitchens’s life. In a recent interview, Levin spoke about Hitchens, Paine, and their shared political and moral vision.

“As I read [his Paine] book, it occurred to me that Christopher Hitchens is Tom Paine in so many ways,” Levin told me. “His absolutely intense passion for a very simple idea of justice that’s really just understood as protecting the weak from the strong; his ability as a result of that to overcome a lot of what we think of as leftism; and to see a kind of radical individualistic notion of justice at the core of society. Of course, this notion of justice translated itself into almost exactly the same things as it did for Paine, all the way down to at the end of his life being devoted to the struggle against traditional religion.”

For Levin, Hitchens’s own particular radicalism gave him intuitive insights into Paine unavailable to most. “Having come to that understanding that he was so much like Paine, I think Hitchens understood where Paine was coming from in a way that can be difficult for us now given the history of the Left and Right since that time. He understood the kind of simple power of the appeal of that kind of Enlightenment radicalism for someone in search of justice. He knew Paine’s writings extremely well, we talked about him in great detail and I really learned a lot about Tom Paine from those conversations.”

For all his identification with Paine, Hitchens sympathized (to an extent) with Burke’s critique of the French Revolution. At the beginning of his essay on Burke, he chose to quote William Hazlitt’s remark that it is “a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.”

Perhaps one could say the same for those on the Right with regard to Hitch.

— Nat Brown is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation.