Christopher Hitchens is truly sui generis: a popular television pundit, a raconteur par excellence, an unpredictable analyst of contemporary politics, a foreign reporter who has hit almost every hot spot in the past two decades, a confirmed atheist, and — perhaps above all — a gifted writer and essayist.
At one time, Hitchens was well known as a man of the political Left, an ally of Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, and Edward Said. Although he had already strayed from his early orthodox Trotskyist roots, his perspective was still well within the confines of acceptable leftism and his columns in The Nation were de rigueur for those looking for a smart take on issues from that point of view. Then came 9/11, and, like many others, Hitchens began to rethink many of his old assumptions. He soon emerged as a fierce defender of the invasion of Iraq even if carried out by George W. Bush. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was consistent with his lifelong commitment to anti-fascism.
Now, Hitchens, who was born and raised in Britain, gives us an entertaining and riveting memoir. His father, whom he always called “The Commander,” was an officer in the Royal Navy during World War II. In his first and most personally moving chapter, Hitchens writes about his mother, Yvonne, who committed suicide when he was 24. It wasn’t until he was almost 40 that he learned she had been born Jewish, a fact that she had hidden from the family. Although baptized in the Church of England, Hitchens acknowledges that by Jewish law he is a member of the “tribe.” But, as an atheist, he has let this have little impact on his religious identity. In any case, he tells us, for him “the sage Jews are those who have put religion behind them and become in so many societies the leaven of the secular and the atheist.”
At the age of eight, Christopher was sent off to boarding school. As Yvonne told her husband, “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, Christopher is going to be in it.” Fortunately for Hitchens, the very good education he would later receive at the Leys School in Cambridge and at Oxford introduced him to literature, philosophy, and grand theory. But, in addition to his studies, by the time he arrived at Oxford he was leading a “double life”: a full-fledged socialist militant, secretly living as an aristocrat on the side. Writes Hitchens, “I was determined as far as I could to have it both ways.” He would go from giving out Trotskyist pamphlets at factory gates and joining picket lines, to an evening out with the other set — “confident young men who owned fast cars, who had ‘rooms’ rather than a room, who wore waistcoats and cravats and drank wine and liqueurs instead of beer,” part of the “more gorgeous and seductive Oxford” his revolutionary comrades studiously avoided.
Some of his later confidence came from early revelations while at school not only that those he regarded as heroes were only human, but also that he already knew as much as they did. “Was it possible,” he writes, “that the class of celebrated ‘experts’ were all like this, that there was an academic kingdom of Oz where it was only pretended that the authorities were absolute?” He was to learn, he writes, after being up close with major thinkers and world leaders, of how “ignorant and sometimes plain stupid were the people who claimed to run the country.” This realization would give him the confidence to become the celebrity iconoclast we know him as today.
Hitchens’s revolutionary movement (International Socialists) led to many adventures in world travels. 1968 saw him on the revolutionary-tourist road to Cuba, where he found that the heralded revolution was anything but “a brave departure from the grim, gray pattern of Soviet socialism.” As he and his comrades heard the news about the Soviet invasion of Prague from Havana’s shores, they expected that Cuba, a small country fighting for its own path in the shadow of the American empire, would reach out to and support the Czech rebels. They were quickly to learn that Fidel Castro heartily endorsed the Soviet invasion. While his Cuban comrades immediately changed their position to match that of Castro, Hitchens stood firm, only to be denounced for the first time as a “counter-revolutionary.” It was the first in a long series of attacks from the political left. But he still believed, as he put it, that his comrades could clear “the way for a ‘real’ and authentic Left to emerge at last.” (As he admits, “I was still somewhat imprisoned within the jargon of Left sectarianism.”)
It would take many more years for Hitchens to shed that last illusion. This, in a way, is the major theme that runs throughout this memoir. In Portugal covering the attempt at revolution in 1975, he found himself in bed with those he used to see as the wrong kind of people: anti-Communists of the social-democratic Left. This pushed him over the edge and forced him to formally leave the ranks of the International Socialists, which he had to acknowledge had become a “party-line sect.” By then, he had even come to appreciate Margaret Thatcher, whom he praises for “terminating the long reign of mediocrity and torpor.” After that, he would leave for the United States, of which, decades later, he would become a citizen.
One of the frustrating things about Hitchens’s reevaluations, however, is that on many of the key issues of the Sixties and Seventies, he has not really managed to rethink old views. For him, the Vietnam War was immoral, unnecessary, and part of the American empire’s forward march. Thus he can call the Vietnamese National Liberation Front “the valiant guerrillas of the Vietcong.” In Central America, he insists that the Sandinistas were heroic, and refers to their opponents as “the homicidal contras.”
Still, Hitchens began to move away from old friends like Vidal and Chomsky. Once a fierce defender of Chomsky’s intellectual assault against the U.S. war in Vietnam, he grew to have doubts about the basis of Chomsky’s analysis. He also came to find a “deep division” regarding America. Chomsky, Hitchens writes, sees “almost everything since Columbus as having been one continuous succession of genocides and land-thefts; he [does] not really believe that the United States of America was a good idea to begin with. Whereas I had slowly come to appreciate that it most certainly was.”
Yet, in his troubling chapter on “the Jewish Question,” he applies precisely the same Chomskyan logic to the existence of Israel. For Hitchens, the establishment of Israel was just the Jews’ colonialist land grab in Palestine, similar to those of the Turks and the British. And it was ironic, he says, that they became “colonizers at just the moment when other Europeans had given up on the idea.” The very idea of a Jewish state seems to enrage him. He neglects to mention, however, that unlike in the case of America, Palestine had actually been the newcomers’ ancestral home for millennia, that they had kept a small presence there, and that they longed someday to return — hence, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”
After learning in 1987 that his mother was Jewish, Hitchens embarked on his “roots” trip to Poland, to try to find out about his unknown relatives. The earliest ancestor he could trace was a Nathan Blumenthal, who decamped for England in the mid-19th century. Hitchens wondered about the remaining family’s fate during the Holocaust, but found that every Blumenthal he could find “had wound up on the transports to Auschwitz.” And he concludes, “So that was that.” As admirable as Hitchens’s concerns are about the injustices suffered by the Palestinians, he seems strangely unable to empathize with the “tribe.” He says, for example, that if anti-Semitism were to rise in the U.S., he would stay put and resist and would detest himself if he “fled from it in any direction.” But it’s all too easy to make such an assertion in the safe environment of today’s America; the Blumenthals of 1942 would have been happy to have an Israel to go to.
Hitchens believes that the notion that the “Jews made the desert bloom” — a “stock” phrase his mother repeated — is false, because it implies that the Palestinian Arabs were “desert dwellers” when they were in fact “the agricultural superiors of the Crusaders.” Once that might have been so, but by the time the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state in 1947, it no longer was. Every commission sent to study the area and make recommendations noted the incredible progress the Jews had made in land reclamation and development. The reaction of an American member of one such commission was not uncommon: “I feel like getting down on my knees before these people. I’ve always been proud of my own ancestors who made farms out of the virgin forest. But these people are raising crops out of rock!” It was President Truman’s hope as well that Israel would be able to contribute to the development of the vast arid lands of the Middle East.
Hitchens did, however, come to differ with his old friend and erstwhile ally, the late Palestinian spokesman and American professor Edward Said. For Hitchens, it was one thing to defend Palestinian rights, another to join those advocating jihad and Islamofascism. His break with Said intensified over Said’s and other leftists’ opposition to the U.S. effort to fight for the Muslims in Bosnia. NATO and American bombing of the Serb aggressors, they argued, “could not by definition be a moral or ethical action.” Hitchens admits, in a kind of Kronstadt moment:
I had wanted the moral arithmetic to add up, while still hoping that it could somehow be made to do this on the “left” side of the column. In Bosnia, though, I was brought to the abrupt admission that, if the majority of my former friends got their way about non-intervention, there would be another genocide on European soil. . . . This was an exceedingly clarifying reflection. It made me care much less about the amour propre of my previous loyalties.
By the time of Said’s death, the two were no longer speaking. Said had accused Hitchens of being a racist. Hitchens was not invited, nor did he intend to go, to Said’s funeral. He says he now experiences “a violent sense of repulsion” when he hears leftist apologetics and is more inclined to take on the “crimes and blunders” of the Left than those of the Right.
Hitchens’s decision after 9/11 to support the Iraq War showed his determination to think independently of any camp. He gives us a careful analysis that blows away the claim that the Bush administration lied our nation into war. He also satisfied himself “that those within the administration who were making the case for ‘regime change’ were sincere in what they believed and were not knowingly exaggerating anything for effect.”
Whether or not one likes the positions Hitchens takes on events and people, one can only admire his resolve to be his own man. My hope is that after continued reflection, he will reconsider some of his remaining positions that stem from the old Trotskyist Left. He gives us grounds for hope, writing that he favors “continual doubt and self-criticism.” But even if he does not, he is a voice to treasure and to take seriously. Christopher Hitchens will continue to challenge and entertain us. He will also attempt to enlighten us, and we know he is smart — he has that British accent.
— Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is author of a memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left. Most recently he co-authored, with Allis Radosh, A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel. This review originally appeared in the July 5, 2010, issue of National Review.