Hitchens: Often Wrong, Always Forthright

(Image via PBS)
Christopher Hitchens was a man of the Left whom conservatives can appreciate.

In his superb Why Orwell Matters (2002), Christopher Hitchens emphasized how George Orwell, by opposing both Hitlerism and Stalinism, “discredited the excuse of ‘historical context’ and the shady alibi that there was, in the circumstances, nothing else that people could have done.” Thus, he concludes, unlike the case with contemporaries such as Ernest Hemingway and George Bernard Shaw, Orwell’s political writings are not “stupid or sinister” and can be reprinted today almost without any embarrassment (the qualifier here is owing to Orwell’s revulsion at homosexuality).

Can the same be said of Hitchens? Yes.

One of the pitfalls of being an essayist, as opposed to a novelist, is that in the former role you take stands that run the risk of coming back to haunt you. This certainly holds true for Hitchens’s view of the Cold War. From the late Eighties into the Nineties — from the implosion of the Soviet Union to the rise of the Russian mafia — he regarded the whole Cold War effort as a waste of time. But sometime around the turn of the century, he found value in the fight. Without abandoning his disgust with the arms race (which he pithily described as putting every person on earth, without their permission, in uniform as front-line targets), or with the United States’ propping up fascist dictatorships because they were anti-Communist, Hitchens reminded readers that the Cold War was also about confronting the “poisonous illusion that the Soviet system had a claim on the democratic Left.” One could believe this without embracing McCarthyism and giving up on civil liberties. Thus, by refusing to say that civil liberties would have to be curtailed for the sake of this conflict, Orwell kept his “little corner of the Cold War clean.” Ditto with Rosa Luxemburg. Hitchens — who, according to Martin Amis, once regarded Lenin as “a great man” — praised Luxemburg’s refusal to abandon civil liberties for what the Bolshevik leader called “emergency measures.” Earlier than most, she saw the police-state direction in which the Bolshevik Revolution was heading, and attempted to warn all those initially attracted to the Soviet Union of what was coming.

This obvious search for value of any kind in the Left could be labeled a holdover from Hitchens’s days as a Trotskyist, when he could denounce the Soviet Union as hopelessly corrupt without abandoning his socialist dream. Hitchens, usually tough-minded and unsentimental, at times lets these still-lingering hopes emerge and engages in wistful speculation about what might have been had the Communist revolution occurred in Germany rather than in Russia: “Had Germany gone the other way, is it completely fanciful to imagine an outcome that would have preempted not just Nazism but, by precept and example, Stalinism, too?”

But these musings are kept in check in the new posthumous collection of essays, And Yet . . . At times, Hitchens’s revulsion at all superpower behavior overlaps with his anti-Communism and puts him in conservative company. He flays the Eisenhower administration for encouraging and promising aid to the Hungarian freedom fighters if they rebelled against their Soviet masters and then, when they did, abandoning them to the Soviet tanks. Although Hitchens is attacking such cynicism (Vice President Nixon smacked his lips over the propaganda victory the Soviets handed the West by crushing Hungary) from an anti-imperial position, he echoes William F. Buckley Jr. in denouncing the lack of aid as criminal.

Hitchens, in his post 9/11 phase, sounded like a conservative when he attacked those on the Left who opposed the War on Terror: “One knew, before that terrible day was out, what would be said by the academic and journalistic and Hollywood Left.” He notes their Bizarro World claims that President Bush invaded “Iraq to avenge his daddy, or to swell the coffers of Halliburton, or to please General Sharon.” And he doesn’t attribute these claims solely to the far Left; such sentiments, he assures us, reach all the way to Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, and Al Gore. But Hitchens doesn’t stop there in his condemnation of liberal foreign policy. He tracks back to the “post-Vietnam isolationism” of Democratic policy-makers who regarded the advent of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, and the Khalq faction of Stalinism in Afghanistan “as nothing more than an invitation for America to ‘come home.’”

He even has kind words for some of his bitterest enemies — though never for the Stalinists or the “Islamo-fascists.” Hitchens puts most of the blame for Vietnam on Cold War liberalism — or, in the parlance of the New Left, “corporate liberalism,” a term designed to point the listener to the “military-industrial complex” that supposedly ruled over their lives. Nonetheless, he gives the Cold War liberals at least some lukewarm applause. He sounds like Buckley when describing liberals’ impetus in moving in an anti-Communist direction and away from the 1948 presidential campaign of the Soviet sympathizer Henry Wallace (Buckley never entirely forgave his friend George McGovern for being part of that campaign). Hitchens agreed with conservatives that Wallace “would have given Eastern Europe to Stalin (and perhaps some of Western Europe too).” The ADA (Americans for Democratic Action), which formed as a liberal reaction against Wallace, is characterized by Hitchens as a “distinguished group” who saw through Communism and still took “a forward position on New Deal programs and the emancipation of black Americans.” He does not hesitate, however, to denounce one of the co-founders of this group — historian and JFK adviser Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — as a suck-up and enabler for a president who was a “sell-out in terms of the ADA’s guiding principles.”

Hitchens even has grudging appreciation for another favorite target of his, Ronald Reagan.

Hitchens even has grudging appreciation for another favorite target of his, Ronald Reagan. Hitchens had long derided Reagan as an out-to-lunch fantasist (in response to the former president’s death, Hitchens characterized him as “dumber than a hedgehog”). However, he points out that Reagan, abandoning the Mutual Assured Destruction policies of previous presidents, helped bring Mikhail Gorbachev to the negotiating table and thus fostered political change in Eastern Europe. Compared with Bill Clinton, Reagan comes off better in Hitchens’s account, especially in terms of more humane welfare reforms than those brought in by “slick Willie.”

Like any essayist, Hitchens could look foolish on occasion. In the Eighties, he was as naïve about the Sandinistas as he would accuse the Old Left of being about Stalin. He never could completely give up on his former idol, Leon Trotsky. He never brought up the fact that it was Trotsky who crushed the outraged revolutionary soldiers at Kronstadt. (Later Communists disillusioned by Soviet behavior in Spain or Czechoslovakia or Hungary or Poland would refer to these events as their “Kronstadt.”) Instead, Hitchens sought to salvage the “Old Man” in a final essay in which he attributed to the exiled figure the belief that Communism had indeed failed.

But such lapses do not detract from the readability of these essays. In this volume one is given a model of how to be a thoughtful journalist. Today, four years after his death, Hitchens is correctly seen as a writer who was unafraid to swim against the tide, even to the point of being politically incorrect. As such he is not loath to explore frankly “reactionary” characters such as H. L. Mencken. Despite a flirtation with fascism, Mencken was celebrated by Hitchens for his willingness to be one against the screaming mob.

All in all, another great book of essays from a writer who we wish were still alive to produce more copy.


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