Christopher Hitchens: Pathology of an Imperialist Ideologue
In November 2011 the journalist and author Christopher Hitchens succumbed to cancer. The occasion provoked an outpouring of encomia on the part of the world’s mainstream press while weaker voices – mainly from smaller alternative organisations – endeavoured to effect a shift in focus, from the lachrymose lament for a writer who spent much of his life in the media spotlight, to the anonymous hundreds of thousands rendered still and cold by the wars in the Middle East the same writer so eloquently helped to prosecute. This article examines some of the central political themes and methodology which underpin the essays Hitchens wrote in that period – the period post-September 11th where the world seemed to grow inexorably darker, overshadowed as it was by the sinister Orwellian abstraction ‘War on Terror’ and its real world materialisations.
One might, of course, wonder if any critical analysis of the later Christopher Hitchens really warrants a place in Socialism and Democracy. The tawdry graduation from young and ostensibly left-wing radical to belligerent, seasoned conservative trumpeting the status quo – is hardly a unique one. And, for over a decade now, voices on the left have criticised Hitchens for selling out, for cynically prostituting his politics and becoming a flag-waver for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in order to reap the financial rewards the establishment had to offer. And yet, such criticisms have never been wholly persuasive, as Hitchens was financially well-off long before his turn on Iraq.
In reality, an instinctive conservatism had been part and parcel of Hitchens’ political make-up throughout. It had flared periodically – as with the patriotic fervour he displayed in defending the British attack on the Falkland Islands in 1982, and later, with his need to belittle the anti-Columbus Day movement and its attempts to draw attention to the genocide committed against the indigenous populations of the American continent. In the aftermath of 9/11, this conservatism – always latent, always bubbling beneath the surface of his political psyche – inexorably asserted itself. He was compelled to radically reconfigure those Marxist elements in his early political education, fusing them with a violent, atavistic reactionarism, in order to provide the most up-to-date defence of 21st-century US imperialism. The means by which Hitchens was compelled to combine such antithetical polarisations – Marxism and imperialism, freedom and oppression, an enlightenment style rationalism along with virulent anti-Islamic forms of racism; the means by which he attempted this synthesis at the most fundamental theoretical level – are fascinating, and certainly worthy of consideration. From the standpoint of pure intellectual curiosity, for sure, but also for more practical purposes too – the brand of toxic alchemy which Hitchens so effectively practised, and which creates revolution from reaction and reaction from revolution – is a potent political formula.
Any study of Hitchens should concede from the outset that its subject was an extremely gifted individual. Hitchens had a wonderful facility with words. His literary flair surpasses that of his idol Orwell, in my view, in terms of its fluidity and grace – and these qualities are accentuated by a mordant, dark humour, and a bewildering ability to draw on the most obscure but apposite quotation from classical German philosophy, for instance, or on some telling epigram from one of the leading minds of the Enlightenment which provided him with so vivid an inspiration. And it would be churlish not to add, even in his later years, the increasingly rotund figure of this patrician journalist was in possession of a certain stoutly courage. One of his essays involves a rather disconcerting and claustrophobic meditation on the author’s first-hand experience of being ‘water-boarded’, ostensibly as a means of research – to gauge whether the procedure constitutes a form of torture (it does), and to decide whether illicit, covert sections of the US military are justified in their recourse to it (they aren’t).
As an investigative journalist Hitchens would too travel to many of the war torn countries he was keen to analyse, often at considerable personal risk. In the centre of Beirut he spies a symbol which resembles a swastika, one which he scrawls across with a bright felt pen – ‘call me old fashioned if you will but I have always taken the view that swastika symbols exist for one purpose only – to be defaced.’1 This spontaneous act of courage at once exposes Hitchens to the violent attentions of a thuggish group of party sympathisers, and the journalist and his companions are lucky to make it away in one piece.
However, this singular act of bravado manages to obfuscate what is a far from minor detail. The party whose symbol Hitchens interfered with – the Syrian Social Nationalist Party – was not a fascist one. Granted it had, and does have, some deeply unpleasant elements within its ideological spectrum: a predilection for a racial nationalism which the founder hoped to culminate in a ‘Greater Syria’, and a propensity toward anti-Semitism among some of its elements. At the same time it has a fundamentally different modus operandi to fascist regimes. The fascist party of the classical type grew from the reaction to a revolutionary situation and the concomitant need to neutralise it. German fascism, for instance, developed out of the revolutionary situation of November 1918 which saw proletarian unrest spread to the major cities; the Freikorps (the antecedents of the Nazis) were formed from the shock troops responsible for assassinating key members of the revolutionary leadership and helping terminate the rebellions. One might add that the movements headed by Mussolini, Franco and Pinochet followed a similar trajectory. But the Syrian Social Nationalist Party did not emerge as a mechanism to abrogate internal working-class dissent; rather it developed as a means by which resistance to French – and then later Israeli – colonialism might be channelled; it had a specific and distinct basis that also implied a complex of progressive social tendencies which genuinely fascist regimes lacked.
In one way Hitchens repeats the mistake of the shrill and youthful student progressive who is inclined, almost reflexively, to denounce any organisation or regime with right-wing or authoritarian leanings as ‘fascist’. But whereas our hypothetical student might plead naivety, Hitchens – who was weaned on the esoteric paraphernalia of a Trotskyist idiom designed to admit all sorts of minutiae and difference in the socio-historical classification between various state forms – cannot claim ignorance here. So why does the word ‘fascist’ – in Hitchens’ speak, so often become little more than an emotive pejorative lacking in sociological seriousness?
The reason relates to his carefully constructed worldview and the role the concept of Islamofascism plays within it. Islamofascism provides the theoretical linchpin of Hitchens’ perspective; it permits the amalgamation of a series of regimes, parties and organisations which often promote extreme forms of Islamic ideology – but tends to disregard the socio-historical conditions in which such entities were shaped and the power relations which surround them. Hezbollah, for example, is regarded by Hitchens in much the same way as it is viewed by mainstream politicians in the west – as a rogue terrorist organisation with a rabid Bin-Ladenist agenda – an organisation which is at the same time somehow alien to Lebanese society; for it has been projected outward by the subversive influence of the Iranian state – ‘part of the shadow thrown on Lebanon by Iran, is Hezbollah.’2
But such a perspective obliterates the historical realities for it fails to concern itself with the manner in which Hezbollah emerged – essentially as a widespread resistance movement which came out of the 1982 war with Israel and the latter’s eighteen year occupation of Southern Lebanon. The resistance involved not only military activity but also the development of a far-reaching social welfare programme which underpinned hospitals, schools and agricultural centres; the vast support Hezbollah enjoys in Lebanon translated into a series of electoral victories – in 1992, for example, it won all 12 of the seats which were on its electoral list.
In Hitchens’ assessment Bin-Ladenism and the atrocities of September 11th and Hezbollah, are two strains of the same phenomenon; i.e. the snarling visage of Islamofascism. That each was cultivated in a radically different set of social conditions is beside the point – indeed it serves the thrust of Hitchens’ argument to remain purposefully oblivious to this. The arming and training of Bin-Laden’s militias by successive US governments as a counterweight to Russian hegemony, and the systematic military interventions by the US in the Middle East in order to secure its geo-political interests; these factors went a good way to prepare the ground for the creation of what would later be loosely termed ‘al Qaeda’ – but the endeavour to deploy historical analysis as a means to understand such phenomenon is, by Hitchens, invariably transmuted into an attempt to justify or capitulate to the Bin-Ladenist agenda.
This is par for the course. For Hitchens’ worldview to retain its coherence, it requires the annihilation of the living historical narrative. It is not important that Bin-Laden was once a creature of the US government cultivated as part of an on-going series of imperial interventions in the region; what is significant is the savage irrationality inherent to ‘Islamofascism’. The lack of any genuine historical analysis in his essays from this period means that the socio-historical relationships between nations and classes are increasingly subject to crude ahistorical personifications; consequently Hitchens becomes a master polemicist in the language of ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Consider, for instance, his analysis of the relationship between the US and Pakistan developed in several of the essays from this period. For Hitchens it is not the case that elements of the ruling class in the United States through the agencies of state foreign policy have devoted vast resources to ensure that the governments which emerge in Pakistan maintain a line favourable to US hegemony helping to preserve its economic interests in the region. No, such historicity is displaced by the astonishing realisation that the finance which is streamed into the country actually comes from a group of well-meaning but misplaced ‘rich dumb Americans who foot the bill.’3 A coherent socio-historical analysis which locates an objective relation between the ruling elites in Washington and the higher echelons of political power in Pakistan that the former seek to infiltrate as part of an on-going imperial project – is progressively eroded in favour of a haphazard, almost colloquial association between those ‘rich dumb Americans’ and the sinister foreigners who abuse their personal largesse.
Indeed the various forms of antagonism toward the imperial power the US exerts in the country are, by Hitchens, rendered bizarre and absurd by the juvenile incoherence of the question he places at the heart of his investigation – ‘Why do they hate us?’4 By anyone’s estimation such a question is surely nonsensical – the ‘they’ refers to a country of over 180 million split into vast territories with exceptional ethnic and linguistic diversity and a multi-faceted economy which has pronounced agricultural and semi-feudal forms that combine and merge with a rapid industrial development; a development affected, in part, by a succession of top-down military dictatorships but also federal democracies. The constant kaleidoscopic shifting in political forms is a product of the cataclysmic instability in the country produced by the pre-existing contradictions of partition, internal regional and class divisions and the territorial tensions with other countries which exacerbate these. For this, Pakistan’s ruling classes inevitably have a conflicted and contrary relationship to all these elements – and, depending on the confluence of circumstance and agency, maintain both a hostile and conciliatory relationship to Washington itself. But again such banal and laborious considerations fade away, for Hitchens has hit upon the answer; he has understood – why they hate us. ‘They hate us’, he says, ‘because they owe us, and are dependent upon us.’5
And so, any resistance to US forces on the part of sections of a population which has experienced United States military incursions and where US governments have helped finance dictatorships – is now transformed into a grudging resentment by a country whose social contradictions and international relations have been obliterated by a crude and illegitimate personification which redraws Pakistan in terms of some surly, swarthy caricature – ‘if Pakistan were a person, he (and it would have to be a he) would have to be completely humourless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offence, and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred.’6 This kind of analysis is astounding from one who claims to be a Marxist. Because – at least nominally – Hitchens did still claim to be a Marxist in the twilight of his life, he was compelled to try to reinterpret the US imperialist ventures post-9/11 as developments which could, in Marxist terms, be described as ‘progressive’.
How did he even attempt such a seemingly impossible exercise in theoretical contortionism?
Hitchens goes back to Marx’s writings on India, citing a couple of sentences in which Marx writes:
England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan was actuated only by the vilest interests…but that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia?7
Hitchens argues that Karl Marx thought that ‘the British had brought modernity to India in the form of printing presses, railways, the telegraph, and steamship contact with other cultures.’ From this Hitchens concludes – ‘Marx…felt that the encounter between England and India was fertile and dynamic and revolutionary.’8
Leaving aside the highly dubious, neutered use of the word ‘encounter’ to describe British imperialism in India, Hitchens has traduced Marx’s analysis here, transforming it into a lifeless technological determinism. One country brings to bear, albeit in a bloody manner, the forms of a more sophisticated technology on the other and facilitates its modernisation thereby. In actual fact Marx’s account of India is far more qualified than Hitchens suggests. In the same article Marx wrote that ‘England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing.’9 This qualification allows a little light in, allows us to see just how empty Hitchens’ interpretation of Marx here actually is – for Marx is not simply concerned with modernisation in ‘the form of printing presses, railways, the telegraph and steamship contact with other cultures.’ Rather he is concerned with ‘the framework of Indian society’ and the possibilities of ‘reconstruction.’
What British imperialism carried with it, was not simply advanced technology but also advanced socio-economic forms. Marx’s logic seems to have been that India would inevitably succumb to one form of imperialism or another, but the British strain would offer the possibility of a thoroughgoing capitalist transformation of Indian society. The adjunct to this, and it is a most vital caveat, is that the development of widespread capitalist social relations across India would also, of necessity, facilitate the creation of a proletariat of the modern type – i.e. the social agency which, according to Marx, had the power to overthrow capitalism – and, consequently, destroy the very form which carried it – i.e. British imperialism. Thus an appreciation of any ‘progressive’ elements of British imperialism on Marx’s part was simultaneously bound up with the overarching requirement of its destruction (Hitchens’ analysis of Iraq is not, for the uninitiated, bound up with the destruction of American imperialism).
It’s also worth noting that Marx’s early comments on India were based on a relative paucity of factual information about imperialism’s actual impact on that country. Aijaz Ahmad suggests, in his book In Theory, that ‘the image of the so-called self-sufficient Indian village community that we find in Marx was lifted, almost verbatim, out of Hegel’10 because of the limited information available – and also the fact that company rule in India was still a relatively new phenomenon (dating from 1757) whose consequences were far from manifest. More importantly, perhaps, Ahmad argues that once ‘the hope of brisk industrialization under colonialism turned out to be so misplaced…Marx himself seems to have abandoned it in later years.’11
But Hitchens does not examine any of these complexities or theoretical nuances. Once again his misreading cannot be chalked up to naivety or lack of knowledge. It cannot be dismissed in this way because it fulfils a very precise ideological function. It dissolves the role of class, and more specifically, it annuls the function of social revolution therein. Hitchens’ analysis deliberately tries to show that India’s revolution was not dependent on the social development of an oppressed class; rather it was achieved by the enforced technological modernisation which a colonial power subjected it to. It then becomes clear how Hitchens managed to claim Marxist credentials even as he supported the US decimations of Iraq and Afghanistan – for the ‘War on Terror’, under this particular variant of ‘Marxism’, could then be described in terms of revolutionary progress.
On Afghanistan for instance – ‘one can so easily fall for a place where everybody thinks about sex, where bombing has blasted a society out of the Stone Age, and where opium is the religion of the people.’ Just take a few moments to reflect on that second clause, to register its sinister militaristic tenor – ‘where bombing has blasted a society out of the Stone Age’ – for this was the way Hitchens, in his later years, understood human emancipation to be unfolded – through the smoke and rubble and smouldering ruins Imperial power leaves in its wake.
And so one can see that any anatomization of Hitchens´ ‘methodology’ reveals two underlying and related tendencies. On the one hand certain forms of historical development are dissolved in a generic category – ‘Islamofascism’ – in particular with regard to those countries in the Middle East and surrounding areas which have been, or continue to be, progressively destabilised by US, British and other strains of modern imperialism. Simultaneously colonial power is comprehended, at least its US variant, in equally ahistorical terms – not as something which is driven forward by specific class interests compounded by the imperatives of geo-political competition on the international stage but rather as a tendency that is reduced and personified. On the fewer and fewer occasions when Hitchens tackles the bloody events of US imperialism past, which once he denounced from the purview of a radical progressive, he is now compelled to articulate them in almost exclusively intra-personal terms. The horrific legacy of Vietnam, for instance, is chalked down to the ‘real monsters such as Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger, who calmly gave the orders and the instructions’.12 In one way this is inevitable. Having developed the theoretical rationale which allows him to perceive American imperialism as an essentially progressive force, Hitchens cannot but regard the Vietnams and Irans as sinister but incidental aberrations; the productions of corrupt individuals – rabid war-mongers like Kissinger – rather than the expressions of a moribund capitalist exploitation that have attained systemic and global proportions.
And insofar as Hitchens understands capitalist power in this way, as something declassed and individualised, so too does he conceptualise any genuinely radical response to it. In an article entitled ‘Hugo Boss’ Hitchens provides us with a tawdry deprecation of the Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez – an account which combines tittle-tattle and spite to evoke an invidious and toxic vision. Chávez has ‘an idiotic weakness for spells and incantations’13 – claims Hitchens, though nowhere does he provide evidence for this – yet he continues nevertheless, deliberately and maliciously graduating the calumny. We are informed that Chávez has ‘many of the symptoms of paranoia and megalomania’14 and, by way of a comic aside, ‘Chávez, in other words, is very close to the climactic moment when he will announce that he is a poached egg’.15 Hitchens utilises a very specific lexicon here, reeling out terms like ‘the boss’ and ‘Venezuela’s capo’ to supplement a sense of a deranged mind with the notion of a criminal tyrant – thus giving to Chávez’s political role a particularly fateful and ominous aura. But, from within the miasma of personal impression and spiteful insinuation one is hard-pressed to find a single salient and telling fact. We are not told, for instance, of the 17 elections and referenda successes that the late Venezuelan president achieved, the majority of which took the form of electoral landslides and which made Chávez, in the words of British politician George Galloway, ‘The most elected leader in the modern era’.16
More than this, once again we discover an absence, a void, the lack of any comprehensive historicism. Hitchens does not reference pre-Chávez Venezuela – a place in which a small light-skinned elite exploited the vast oil reserves in conjunction with Washington, forcing the majority of the darker mixed and indigenous to languish in almost apartheid-like conditions of poverty and exploitation. Hitchens does not reference the ‘Caracazo’ of 1989 – the massacre by government troops which took the lives of thousands of the Venezuelan poor and, in many ways, provided the impetus for Chávez’s Bolivarian movement. And Hitchens neglects to refer to the CIA-backed coup of 2002 in which Chávez was illegally removed from power by the Venezuelan elite in an operation backed by the CIA – an operation thwarted by the intervention of the masses, as they thronged from the barrios and the hills, closing in on the Miraflores palace and compelling the return of the democratically elected president.
All of this living history, rendered vivid by blood and suffering, is by Hitchens simply washed away, in favour of a haughty character assassination directed at Chávez which is both unprincipled and false. The elegance of Hitchens’ prose and the beauty of his rhetorical flourishes do not manage to belie the fact that this is primitive politics; ad hominem gutter-snipping of the lowest order, but it is worth noting the edge of sarcastic bitterness which creeps into Hitchens’ writings whenever he deals with a genuine proponent of social emancipation.
And in one way this makes perfect sense. What becomes clear on reading his autobiographical memoir Hitch 22 is that throughout his life Hitchens was keeping two sets of books. On the one hand – as a bright young student inhaling the intoxicating aromas of the late 60s, the heady atmosphere of rebellion and freedom which reached its zenith in May 68 – Hitchens developed many radical sensibilities. At the same time he was inexorably drawn to the glittering glamour of the student elite and the establishment more broadly; the gorgeous, seductive, twilight world of champagne-sparkling soirees and the subtle, flirtatious attentions of its denizens who permitted him ‘to sing for my supper.’17 The need to have it both ways, so to say – to be able to indulge the exhilarating frisson and enjoy the moral vitality which are the remits of the freedom fighter, while simultaneously partaking in the silky confidences of the most famous and powerful – this was the central, elemental contradiction which fissured across Hitchens’ existence. His stance on Iraq and Afghanistan post-9/11 would provide for its erstwhile, though ultimately artificial, resolution.
For by tinkering with Marxism, blunting its class dynamic and its social revolutionary edge, and transfiguring it into a form of technological determinism used to fortify American imperialism in Mesopotamia with a veneer of progressivism – it was this contradiction which Hitchens, intuitively and semi-consciously, was in some way seeking to address. He was able to replace fundamental socio-economic conflict and exploitation – both on a national class basis and an international one – with an ahistorical conflict between generic ideological forms. The spread of Islamofascism would be countered by the flowering of a second resplendent enlightenment – one to be carried by American bombs and the rousing words of one Christopher Hitchens, who had assumed the mantle and provided the movement with its own 21st-century Paine. In this way Hitchens could manifest as the revolutionary of reactionaries, the figure who channelled the intransigence of rebellion in and through the prosaic but lethal operations of global empire.
But the fantasy of his own intellectual creation was consistently perforated by the historical realities. By the implosions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the strengthening of Islamic terrorism rather than its diminishment. By the Arab spring which perfumed across much of North Africa displacing several pro-American dictatorships, and which Hitchens would, at the last moment, try to ally himself with – though he had long since forgone any commitment to the concept of revolution from below (unless it worked in conjunction with ‘Western Civilisation’ i.e. American imperialism). Those who articulated these themes and others were despised by Hitchens with unadulterated vitriol as ‘demagogic’ and ‘dangerous’ and, for those like Chávez, who represented the highest forms of social struggle and revolutionary overcoming, the sheer potency of his bile was almost without limit. For such struggles, however far away, still manage to resonate; even, perhaps, across the burble of gentile conversation and vapours of fine wine which pervade the most exclusive establishments in Washington that Hitchens so dutifully frequented; even as he once more sang out so eloquently for his supper in the midst of the nation’s most well to do.
Hitchens is dead. But his influence lives on. Many of the ideological assumptions he so expressly gave phrase to have attained a particular currency – especially given the contemporary geo-political context; the continued infiltration of the Middle East by ‘western’ power. In such a context, the generic, ahistorical conflict Hitchens posed between a medieval Islam and a rejuvenated enlightenment provides the ideal ideological veil which cloaks the subversions undertaken on the part of a predatory global capitalism facilitated by its most powerful economic actors.
And the means by which Hitchens was able to neutralise such fundamentally historical forms should be mercilessly deconstructed by those on the left inasmuch as a good few of our number have fallen foul of them. In 2006 a group of left-wing academics – including some who explicitly identify as Marxist such as Norman Geras – signed The Euston Manifesto. This declaration broadly asserted that the left as a whole had been over-critical of ‘western’ governments – specifically with regard to the issue of military deployment in Iraq, and far too tolerant of the forces which opposed the invasion. Ironically for the ultra-antitheist Hitchens, the methodological constructions he provided continue to contain a quasi-religious power; that is to say, they make possible a miraculous transubstantiation whereby oppression becomes freedom and the colonialist steps forward as liberator.
1. C. Hitchens, ‘The Swastika and the Cedar’, Vanity Fair, May 2009 www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2009/05/christopher-hitchens200905
3. C. Hitchens, ‘From Abbottabad to Worse’, Vanity Fair, July 2011 www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2011/07/osama-bin-laden-201107
7. K. Marx, Articles on India, ‘British Rule in India’ (Bombay: People’s Publishing House, 1951), 29.
8. C. Hitchens, Arguably, ‘Edward Said’ (Great Britain: Atlantic Books 2012), 507.
9. Marx, ‘British Rule in India’, 24.
10. A. Ahmad, In Theory: Nations, Classes, Literature (London: Verso, 1994), 224.
11. Ibid., 227.
12. C. Hitchens, ‘The Vietnam Syndrome’, Vanity Fair, August 2006 www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2006/08/hitchens200608
13. C. Hitchens, ‘Hugo Boss’, Slate, August 2, 2010
16. G. Galloway, ‘Hugo Chávez’s death is a body blow for the poor and oppressed throughout Latin America’, The Independent, March 5, 2013 www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/hugo-Chavezs-death-is-a-body-blow-for-the-poor-and-oppressed-throughout-latin-america-8521834.html
17. C Hitchens, Hitch 22 A Memoir, (London: Atlantic Books 2011) p.103