AUTHOR’S NOTE: I had just finished this essay when I heard the terrible news that my friend Christopher had a cancer whose prognosis was dire. My heart and thoughts go out to him, as they would to a brother. I have known Christopher as a man of great courage and decency and have an affection for him that is not adequately expressed in the intellectual argument that follows. It is indeed an intellectual argument, and Christopher, I am sure, will welcome it as a testament to the way in which he has challenged us all — just as I am sure that he will continue to do so.
This is the first of a two-part series.
I first met Christopher Hitchens in 1970 when I was editing Ramparts, then the largest magazine of the Left. Hitchens, who was fresh out of Oxford and ten years my junior, was embarking on his first adventure in the New World. When he arrived at my Berkeley office looking for guidance, and after we had gotten acquainted, he asked me in all seriousness, “Where is the working class?” Only the devout Left — the “holy rollers” as I thought of them — still believed in this mythical entity in the nation where every man was king. But rather than make an issue of it, I directed my visitor to the local Trotskyists, failing to realize that he was one of them.
Our next encounter took place a dozen years later and was not nearly as pleasant. By then I had abandoned most tenets of the leftist faith, although not yet departed its community. I was invited to a small lunch at which Hitchens was present with Nation editors Victor Navasky and Kai Bird, and one or two others. Before long the conversation at the table turned to the Middle East, and I found myself confronting what in those days we referred to as a political “gut check.” What was my attitude, Hitchens wanted to know, towards Israel’s invasion of Lebanon? The Left abhorred the invasion, whose purpose was to clear out the PLO terrorists who had entrenched themselves behind an international border and were shelling towns in northern Israel, killing civilians. “This is the first Israeli war I have supported,” I said, thereby ending any fraternal possibilities for the remaining conversation.
Two years later, my writing partner Peter Collier and I voted for Ronald Reagan, and three years after that organized a “Second Thoughts” conference, which brought together former radicals like ourselves who had become advocates of the anti-Communist cause, specifically in Nicaragua and Vietnam. Hitchens came to the conference with his Nation cohort and long-time friend, Alexander Cockburn, and attacked us. In the Nation column he later filed, Hitchens described our implication that second thoughts might be superior to first ones as “smug,” and my suggestion that supporting America’s enemies should be considered treason, as “sinister.”
But times change, and now Hitchens himself has been associated with a generation of post–9/11 second-thoughters. He has revised his attitudes towards the Left and its loyalties and has vaunted a patriotism towards America he would once have thought of as, well, sinister. To commemorate and explicate these heresies, which he prefers to describe as a “mutation” rather than a “metamorphosis,” he has written an engrossing memoir, called Hitch-22. Among its other uses, the book provides a fertile occasion for those of us who preceded him to take a second look at second thoughts, and to measure the distances that we, and our one-time antagonist, have come.
Hitchens is a man of such unruly contradictions that it may be said of him, as Dr. Johnson did of the metaphysical poets, that he has “the ability to yoke heterogeneous ideas by violence together.” Opponent of America’s war in Vietnam and supporter of America’s war in Iraq; libertarian defender of free-market capitalism and unabashed admirer of Trotsky and Marx; friend to Paul Wolfowitz, a neoconservative hawk, and to Victor Navasky, an apologist for the Rosenbergs, Hamas, and Alger Hiss.
It is not only incompatible ideas and comrades that Hitchens comfortably embraces, but modes of being. He is both a political renegade and keeper of the flame, a ferocious partisan and practiced ironist, a postmodern skeptic and romantic nostalgist, a passionate moralist and calculating operator, a hard-headed critic and dewy-eyed sentimentalist, a serious thinker and attention grabber, irreverent contrarian and serenader of the choir, one-dimensional polemicist and literary polymath, self-styled Man of the People and accomplished social climber, and — most inexplicable — an Oxonian gentleman with conservative manners who is also a master of vitriol and ad hominem.
If there is one thing to be discovered in reading Hitchens’s memoir, it is that there are not many things you will figure out about Hitchens that he has not already thought of himself. Thus his chronicle opens with a wonderfully realized account of his origins, containing portraits of his conservative naval father and romantic mother, “two much opposed and sharply discrepant ancestral stems: two stray branches that only war and chance could ever have caused to become entwined.” On the one side the rebel who refused to know her place; on the other the man Hitchens calls the Commander, who defended Britain in the war and of whom he says in tribute, “Sending a Nazi convoy raider to the bottom is a better day’s work than any I have ever done.”
Throughout this narrative, we are alerted to Hitchens’s pursuit of “the Janus-faced mode of life.” As the Roman god of temple doorways, Janus looked both ways and is depicted with two faces in the statuary honoring him. Grabbing the horns of his own enigma, Hitchens observes that the doors of the temple were open in time of war, and war “is a time when the ideas of contradiction and conflict are most naturally regnant,” and that the most intense wars are civil, and the most rending conflicts internal. “What I hope to do now,” he says of the text before us, “is give some idea of what it is like to fight on two fronts at once, to try and keep opposing ideas alive in the same mind, even occasionally to show two faces at the same time.”
It is the initial salvo in a campaign to defend a life that aspires to moral authenticity but that often seems to skirt the edge of having it both ways, a tendency that provides his most determined enemies an opening to exploit. “It is as though he sees his own double-dealing as a rather agreeable versatility — as testimony to his myriad-mindedness rather than as a privileged, spoilt-brat desire (among other things) to hog it all.” In this wise, the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton castigates him in the New Statesman. Characteristically, Hitchens embraces the contradiction, making no effort to hide his desire to have it both ways, and making constant references to his “two-track system” and “double-entry books.” Describing an occasion when he was caught by his comrades fraternizing with the class enemy while a student revolutionary at Oxford he writes: “I could have taken refuge in some ‘know your enemy’ formulation but something in me said that this would be ignoble. I didn’t want a one-dimensional politicized life.”
Whatever may be said of these choices, they are why Hitchens is far more interesting than Eagleton or any of the left-wing critics with whom he still shares many prejudices. It is why reading his memoir — agree with the politics or find them merely confusing, or not — is an enterprise that is rewarding and, more often than not, a delight. But the desire not to be confined to one path does not explain the politics that unfold along several, or resolve the ethical problems that result.
In attempting to understand Hitchens’s politics and to understand him, we are continually frustrated by a troubling lacuna at the heart of his memoir — a Hitch-22 as it were. Inexplicably for a writer so keenly observant of the world around him, Hitchens’s attempt at a self-portrait lacks the introspective curiosity and interior dimension that would facilitate such a task or unwrap his mysteries for us.
As a way of introducing the problem, permit me the indulgence of referring to my own account of reappraisals in which I described that point in my life when I had to reject the faith that had shaped it until then: “In that very moment a previously unthinkable possibility . . . entered my head: The Marxist idea, to which I had devoted my entire intellectual life and work was false. . . . For the first time in my conscious life I was looking at myself in my human nakedness, without the support of revolutionary hopes, without the faith in a revolutionary future — without the sense of self-importance conferred by the role I would play in remaking the world. For the first time in my life I confronted myself as I really was in the endless march of human coming and going. I was nothing.”
It was this crucible of despair in which my conservative worldview was formed, as I set about finding other reasons to go on than the political myths that had sustained me until then. But there is no such moment of crisis and self-revelation disclosed in Hitchens’s account, despite the fact that he describes changes in his outlook that would warrant both. Perhaps there was no such a dark night of the soul when Hitchens embraced individuals and a nation that he had been at war with until then (although we may remain skeptics about that). But such a night certainly took place, when he was climbing onto the wave of the future as a young man just out of college. The event was the suicide of his mother, Yvonne, then still a young woman, in a hotel room in Athens. She had ended her life in a pact with her clergyman lover. It was, Hitchens concedes, a “lacerating, howling moment in my life.” He was all of 24 years old.
There is no indication in Hitchens’s memoir of how this trauma may have affected the double lives he has engaged, the personal and political triangles he has indulged, or the fracturing of commitments he has made. It is left for us to speculate about them from a text that denies us elements that are crucial to the task.
Although Hitchens has been married twice and has had other romantic attachments, including a briefly mentioned affair with the sister of Martin Amis, none really appear in the 400-page book he has written about his life. Of Hitchens’s first wife, a Greek Cypriot lawyer and the mother of his two oldest children, we are told nothing, not even her name. Carol, his second wife, is mentioned several times in passing but we are never introduced to her, and there is no portrait to put flesh on the abstraction, no real attempt to convey his feelings towards her or towards the commitments of marriage. Of his children he writes mainly to concede his guilt over his absence as a father.
But when it comes to Yvonne, whose chapter-length portrait opens the book, the texture is quite different and his feelings rise rapidly to the surface: “Yvonne then was the exotic and the sunlit when I could easily have had a boyhood of stern and dutiful English gray. She was the cream in the coffee, the gin in the Campari, the offer of wine or champagne instead of beer, the laugh in the face of bores and purse-mouths and skinflints, the insurance against bigots and prudes.” In a single sentence at the end of this account that follows her death he provides a glimpse of the impact: “Her defeat and despair were also mine for a long time, but I have reason to know that she wanted me to withstand the woe, and when I once heard myself telling someone that she had allowed me a ‘second identity,’ I quickly checked myself and thought no, perhaps with luck she had represented my first and truest one.”
Then, just when we would expect the author’s gaze to continue inward and pursue the vein he has opened, the text abruptly interrupts itself. There then follows a set piece with the cold heading: “A Coda on the Question of Self-Slaughter.” What comes next is an academic paper on the psychological and sociological theories of suicide. Hitchens tells us these thoughts represent a quest he pursued over “four decades,” and in this way uncovers without actually conceding it, the pain that did not go away.
Yvonne, we know, was the power behind young Hitchens’s throne. “If there is a ruling class,” she vowed when he was young, “Christopher is going to be part of it.” Despite the constraints of their circumstances, she sent him to infiltrate England’s Protestant establishment, first at a posh private school the family could barely afford, and then to Oxford to join the upper crust. She was herself a secret agent, a displaced Polish Jew who, in marrying Hitchens’s father — an Anglican officer in the Royal Navy — had infiltrated an alien (and anti-Semitic) culture, hiding her true identity from her new family in order to provide herself and her children with opportunities that would otherwise have been denied them.
How did this matrilineal romance and its tragic ending affect Hitchens’s attitude towards the progressive future towards his comrades envisaged? How did it affect his belief in the pursuit of those sunny tomorrows, or color his optimism about the quest for social justice? Where was the justice for him? For Yvonne? Writing of the anarchistic upheavals in France in 1968, he observes: “If you have never yourself had the experience of feeling that you are hooked to the great steam engine of history, then allow me to inform you that the conviction is a very intoxicating one.” And what happens when the engine and the feeling stop?
While he was making his way through private schools and burrowing into the inner sanctums of the establishment, Hitchens was simultaneously becoming a social rebel, taking the very skills these venerable institutions placed in his hands and putting them into the service of the war that was being waged against them. Yet, even his commitment to rebellion was only half-made, or not so much made as hedged: “I was slowly being inducted into a revolution within the revolution, or to a Left that was in and yet not of the ‘Left’ as it was generally understood. This perfectly suited my already-acquired and protective habit of keeping two sets of books.”
The sect Hitchens joined was a branch of Trotskyism, a movement of the followers of a defector from the Communist mainstream. Called the International Socialists, it consisted of 100 or so members. The International Socialists separated themselves from other Trotskysists (and Trotsky himself), who still defended the Soviet Union, regarding it as a “deformed” socialist state. By contrast, Hitchens’s sect by contrast regarded the Soviet Union as having defected from socialism to become a capitalist — a “state capitalist” — country. This allowed them to continue their attacks on the democracies of the West without having to defend Russia and make excuses for the totalitarian state.
How does Hitchens view this scholastically precious politics, or interpret its significance today? He doesn’t say. Fortunately, there is another witness: his younger brother Peter. The brothers pursued intriguingly parallel paths: Peter joined the same International Socialist sect in the same era and later came to have second thoughts, emerging as a religious conservative with no ambivalent attitudes towards his leftist past. Despite his utility as a Hitchens foil — and not merely in matters political — Peter is virtually invisible in Hitchens’s text, appearing for the first time as an intelligible figure as it is about to end.
Of the International Socialists that the Hitchens brothers joined, Peter observes: “The [other Trotskyists] were more honest than we were. Ours was the extreme version of pretending that the USSR was not the fault of socialists, or even of Bolsheviks (which we wished to be). Of course it was their fault, the fault of people exactly like us, but we closed our minds to this with a web of excuses. We pretended not to be who we were, and that the USSR was not what it was.”
Christopher Hitchens has no such observations, while remaining loyal to the fundamental position, as he reveals in attitudes towards the war in Vietnam. Peter writes of the International Socialists, “Where it was easy to do so, we supported causes — the National Liberation Front in Vietnam in particular — whose objects were to extend Soviet power.” For our generation of leftists, Vietnam was the Rosetta Stone of second thoughts. When America quit the field of battle under pressure from the antiwar Left, and the Communists proceeded with the slaughter of innocents, we recoiled in horror at what our campaigns had facilitated, and said goodbye to all that.
Not so Christopher Hitchens, who has stayed loyal to the views he held then, regarding the Communists as liberators and America as Vietnam’s oppressor. “The United States was conducting an imperialist war in Indo-China,” he writes in his memoir, “and a holding action against the insistent demands of its own long-oppressed black minority at home.” What holding action would that be? The American civil-rights movement was supported by the entire country outside the Deep South, including the White Houses of both Kennedy and the Southerner Lyndon Johnson. What imperialist war is Hitchens referring to? The one bruited in a famous malapropism of Jane Fonda, who claimed on national television that America was in Vietnam for the “tung and the tinsten”? Or is Hitchens ventriloquizing Ho Chi Minh and claiming that Americans wanted to replace the French?
Writing of his participation in a “vast demonstration” in London in front of the American Embassy to protest the war, he recalls “the way in which my throat and heart seemed to swell as the police were temporarily driven back and the advancing allies of the Vietnamese began to sing ‘We Shall Overcome.’” He then comments: “I added to my police record for arrests, of all of which I am still reasonably proud.” But why? Hitchens’s antiwar comrades, the International Socialists among them, were not “allies of the Vietnamese” but of the Vietnamese Communists and, as Peter Hitchens correctly points out, of the Soviet empire behind them. What these leftists — and their allies in America and Europe — actually achieved in Indo-China was one of the largest genocides on record and a totalitarian future for the Cambodians and Vietnamese.
To remain an unreconstructed New Leftist into the 21st century is a particularly troubling failing for a man whose model is George Orwell and whose political persona is anchored in a perceived moral authority. In a statement that amounts to a one-sentence credo, Hitchens writes: “The synthesis for which one aimed was the Orwellian one of evolving a consistent and integral anti-totalitarianism.” But apparently not for the Cambodians and Vietnamese.
Loyalty to bad commitments leads to moral incoherence, which also manifests itself in Hitchens’s choices of friends and enemies. The epic struggle against totalitarianism for much of the 20th century was America’s Cold War against the Soviet empire. But during the last decades of this Cold War, Hitchens’s platform was The Nation — America’s leading journal of the “anti-anti Communist left,” that is, of apologists for Communist crimes and enablers of the totalitarian bloc. Although Hitchens undoubtedly had internal dissents, Hitchens’s political friends are still generously drawn from The Nation’s editorial board and the English Marxists around New Left Review, whom he acknowledges in an end note as “heroes and heroines of the ‘first draft’ and of the work in progress.” (For the record, I was unable to detect a conservative name on the list.) Among them are the aforementioned Victor Navasky, Robin Blackburn, a Castro acolyte, and Perry Anderson, an anti-American Marxist who regards both the 9/11 attacks and the war in Iraq as by-products of the “Israel Lobby’s” stranglehold on American policy, and someone whom Hitchens himself described to me as an old-fashioned “anti-Semite.”
As a revolutionist within the revolution, Hitchens’s record was by no means as regrettable as this list might indicate, but it was bad enough. My own experience of Hitchens’s malodorous Cold War service was his presence on the firing squad that came to our Second Thoughts Conference with the intent to stigmatize, discredit, and silence our small band of New Leftists who had been prompted by the Indo-China slaughter to reconsider their socialist friends. Two years later, Hitchens attacked me venomously over Destructive Generation, the account Peter Collier and I wrote of the Sixties and the way the seductive promises of socialism led to totalitarian ends. I appeared on a PBS book show with Hitchens, who jabbed me with the remark, “Who cares about his pathetic family?” after I had related my father’s strange funeral, where the political comrades gathered to eulogize him couldn’t remember who he actually was. Hitchens had brought his friend, Susan Sontag’s son David Rieff, along to spit at me in the green room, for noting how Sontag had trimmed her sails after her famously telling remark that Communism was “fascism with a human face.” I have long since forgiven Hitchens (and Rieff), but the incident is a sharp reminder of how fiercely partisan Hitchens once was in behalf of the Left.
Another telling elision in Hitchens’s backward look is that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of Soviet totalitarianism pass virtually unnoticed. In so far as Hitchens mentions the anti-Communist struggle at all, the heroes he singles out are virtually all East European socialists like Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron, worthy figures whose countrymen finally had enough of the Soviet empire. But of the conservatives who waged the anti-totalitarian struggle for nearly four decades, and of Ronald Reagan, the free-world leader who actually wielded the power that made those “velvet revolutions” possible — or even thinkable — Hitchens says only this: “Even now, when I squint back at him through the more roseate lens of his compromise with Gorbachev, I can easily remember . . . exactly why I found him so rebarbative at the time.” Rebarbative, adj: repellent, unattractive, forbidding, grim.
And what might Hitchens have in mind in referring to Reagan’s “compromise” with Gorbachev? Gorbachev’s agreement not to send the Red Army to repair the Berlin Wall and crush the revolt in exchange for Reagan’s agreement not to invade the Soviet Union?
But Hitchens is not finished: “There was, first, his appallingly facile manner as a liar” and that “he was married to a woman who employed a White House astrologer.” And more: “[Reagan] was frequently photographed in the company of ‘end-times’ Protestant fundamentalists,” and so on. This litany has actually been cleaned up from its first appearance, in the obituary Hitchens wrote when Reagan died, and from which much of the present attack is cribbed: “I only saw him once up close, which happened to be when he got a question he didn’t like . . . The famously genial grin turned into a rictus of senile fury: I was looking at a cruel and stupid lizard.” This is how Hitchens sums up a man who liberated hundreds of millions of victims of totalitarianism and who is revered throughout the former Soviet empire for this very reason.
Contrast this contemptuous performance with Hitchens’s enduring sympathies for his long-admired but now former friend Noam Chomsky, a man who spent the Cold War years denying the Cambodian holocaust, promoting a denier of the Jewish Holocaust, and comparing America — unfavorably — to the Third Reich. When Chomsky’s extreme views came under attack from other leftists, Hitchens actually defended him in a regrettable article that attempted to explain away Chomsky’s apologetics for genocide, which he called “The Chorus and Cassandra,” as though Chomsky were a truth-teller to whom no one would listen. Eventually the two fell out over Chomsky’s justification of the 9/11 attacks and opposition to the war in Bosnia. But in his memoir, written nearly ten years later, Hitchens still manages to find Chomsky “a polemical talent well-worth mourning, and [a man with] a feeling for justice that ought not to have gone rancid and resentful.” As a onetime leftist who had a similar falling out with Chomsky 20 years earlier over his insistence that America was no better than Russia, I can testify that Chomsky’s feelings were rancid and resentful well before 9/11.
A similar myopia clouds Hitchens’s otherwise admirable defenses of First Amendment freedoms. His long and courageous battle in behalf of Salman Rushdie, on whom the Ayatollah Khomeini had pronounced a fatwa of death, is one of several memorable set pieces in Hitchens’s memoir and a pivotal episode in the evolution of his current beliefs. The Rushdie case was, he writes, “a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression.”
But in the next breath, Hitchens fawns over Communist hack Jessica Mitford, who spent her life supporting dictatorships, stupidity, demagogy, bullying, intimidation, and censorship — and he calls her one of his “heroines.” This small hypocrisy has a large resonance for me. When Peter Collier and I were still on the left, we wrote an article about murders that had been committed by George Jackson and other Black Panthers, then and now regarded as progressive heroes. Leftists who were aware of these crimes suppressed the knowledge and withheld the facts in the name of a higher truth. We published our article in the journal of a progressive writers’ guild at some personal risk, since members of the political gangs responsible for them were still active.
While our article was undergoing the usual editorial scrutiny and after it appeared, Jessica Mitford and Nation journalist Eve Pell led a campaign to stigmatize us as snitches and racists (since the perpetrators of the crimes were black), and to pressure the journal’s editors into censoring what we had written. In a letter describing our article not as untrue but as “appalling” and “atrocious” because it was true, Mitford wrote: “I deeply wish it had never been written.” At a public meeting of the progressive guild, to which we ourselves belonged, she told the writers assembled that it was their responsibility as progressives to suppress facts that hurt the cause and to print only those facts that helped it. How, in the light of this reality, is Jessica Mitford one of Hitchens’s heroines?
Or how, for that matter, is Leon Trotsky one of Hitchens’s heroes? The unsentimental Peter Hitchens observes that the Trotskyist Left to which he and his brother belonged were in the habit of attacking Communists in power as tyrants but supporting Communists when they were out of power as liberators. As examples, he cites the lionization of Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, who, as it happens, are two of his brother’s “favorite characters in history” (the other three being Socrates, Spinoza, and Thomas Paine). Rosa Luxemburg was a revolutionary murdered young, and therefore, as Peter Hitchens comments, she “never lived to touch power.” Trotsky, on the other hand, became a revolutionary in power and was deeply implicated in the emergence of the totalitarian state. He was the commander of the Red Army forces sent to crush the revolt of the Kronstadt sailors, who were Bolsheviks protesting the sinister turn the revolution had already taken. Trotsky was a promoter of the forced-labor policies that led to the gulag, author of the most articulate defense of the Red Terror and one of its enforcers, and a champion of the principle that the end justifies the means. How, then, does he become one of Hitchens’s five favorite historical figures?
One way to admire Trotsky is to wear political blinders and focus on the figure of Trotsky out of power, the author of The Revolution Betrayed and the leader of the sect of former Communists seeking to overthrow the totalitarian regime he had done so much to create. Which is how Hitchens does see and admire him, although he frames the picture a little more magnificently, regarding Trotsky as the hero of an “epic struggle to mount an international resistance” to Stalin and the totalitarian state. It is as an avatar of the anti-Stalinist Left, the creator of a movement that Hitchens continues to romanticize, that Trotksy inspires adulation. Trotskyism means that Hitchens can regard himself as a Marxist and a revolutionary without having to say he’s sorry.
There is another way, however, that Trotsky can appear as a worthy paladin, which is if one believes that the engine of “history” is still running, and that the epic oppressions of Stalinism were merely an unpleasant prelude to a noble future. This is, in fact, the way my one-time mentor Isaac Deutscher, who is also a one of Hitchens’s heroes, actually did portray and justify Trotsky. Deutscher’s three-volume hagiography was recently the subject of Hitchens’s praise in an Atlantic Monthly review. As it happens, the framework of Deutscher’s entire trilogy is the assumption that the engine of history is still running, that at some point in time the socialist foundations of Soviet society will assert themselves and give birth to an authentic socialist state. Of course, Deutscher was wrong: The socialist foundations of the Soviet Union were bankrupt and caused the Soviet collapse, because Marx’s economic theories are bankrupt. But there is no such recognition in Hitchens’s review, or for that matter in his memoir.
Instead there is Hitchens’s suggestion that “a faint, saintly penumbra still emanates from the Old Man,” since the spirit of his “revolution within the revolution” can still be detected in the magical moment of 1968 or in the presence of a handful of Trotskyists in the Polish Solidarity movement during the last days of the Soviet empire. But this is merely the triumph of sentiment over history. An immeasurably greater historical force against Communism in Poland was an institution that Hitchens loathes so much he doesn’t deign to mention its role: the Catholic Church.
But Hitchens will still attempt to have it both ways. In a recent conversation with Martin Amis, he said, “For most of my life I thought the only principle worth upholding, worth defending, worth advocating, worth witnessing for, was socialist internationalism,” and added, “I am no longer a socialist, but I am still a Marxist.” These statements would seem to mean he no longer believes that socialism is a future that can actually work. In an interview with Reason magazine conducted just prior to 9/11, he virtually conceded as much: “There is no longer a general socialist critique of capitalism — certainly not the sort of critique that proposes an alternative or a replacement.”
But why persist, then, in describing oneself as a Marxist, since Marx’s entire worldview and critique of capitalism were based on the assumption that socialism was a real alternative to the current social order? Why would Hitchens fail to understand that in seeking to achieve an impossible future, revolutionaries become a destructive force? If there can be no socialist future, then the effort to achieve one by tearing down existing societies and institutions is simply nihilism.
Unfortunately, and despite his disavowals, Hitchens’s book is rich — embarrassingly so — in testaments to an unrepentant utopianism (although he eloquently hedges this bet, too, in his final chapter). Consider this passage that begins with a romantic paean to the “labor movement” of which Hitchens says, “For me, this ‘movement’ is everything.” He then proceeds to this remarkable statement: “Official Britain may have its Valhalla of heroes and statesmen and conquerors and empire builders, but we know that the highest point ever reached in the history of civilization was in the city of Basel in 1912 when the leaders of the socialist parties of all countries met to coordinate an opposition to the coming World War.”
What the socialist parties agreed to in Basel in 1912 was to refuse to vote for the war credits in their respective national parliaments when the impending conflict broke out. Marx had written — and “socialist internationalists” believed — that the working classes had no country, and therefore had nothing to lose but their chains. But this was a Marxist fantasy, unanchored in reality, and two years after “the highest point ever reached in human civilization,” the same socialist parties turned their back on the pledge and voted to go to war. In other words, the workers did have a country. Marx was wrong, and socialism was exposed as an empty — and dangerous — illusion.
Although he has heroically abandoned his “antiwar” stance and “internationalist” faith, a part of Hitchens prefers to live in this fantasy and continue the dream. For this Hitchens, the engine of history is still steaming ahead: “The names of real heroes like [the socialists] Jean Jaures and Karl Liebknecht make the figures of Asquith and Churchill seem like pygmies.” And why would this be so? Because (in this fantasy vision) if an international socialist revolution had taken place in 1919, it would have precluded all the subsequent nightmares of the 20th century, including the ones that faux socialists and Marxists created: “The violence and disruption of a socialist transformation in those years would have been infinitely less than the insane sacrifice of culture to barbarism, and the Nazism and Stalinism that ensued from it.”
Socialism or barbarism — this was the precise slogan and choice that Rosa Luxemburg put before her fellow revolutionaries, of which Hitchens would still like to count himself one today. It is little more than a secular version of the choice between heaven and hell. One of the oddities of Hitchens’s compartmentalized life is that the author of God Is Not Great and of its brazen anathema of a subtitle — How Religion Poisons Everything — should be so passionately attached to this political version of an earthly redemption. But Hitchens finds a quasi-exit clause for this cul-de-sac as well. The “‘movement which for me is everything,” was for all intents and purposes dead (“all gone now, gone to pieces,”). But then, again, this did not preclude the possibility that one day it might spring to life.
— David Horowitz is the founder of the David Horowitz Freedom Center and co-author of One-Party Classroom: How Radical Professors at America’s Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine Our Democracy.