Christopher Hitchens died 10 years ago this month. Many young leftists remember “Hitch”, if at all, as a militant atheist who took turns debating the existence of God through pastors and defending the war in Iraq.
The first book with his name on the cover was a collection of essays by Marx and Engels on the Paris Commune. It was published in 1971, the centenary of the Commune, and Hitchens wrote the introduction. Exactly 30 years later, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, he admitted to himself and his readers that he had finally given up the hope for the socialist future, for which he had long campaigned. In the decades in between, he regularly surprised people who called on his C-SPAN appearances to denounce him as a dangerous “liberal”. He would to explain that the label offended him – and not for what they might think.
A lot of leftists, of course to do Recall that Hitchens believed that the ten ten years of his career invalidated the previous 30. Whether they blame Islamophobia, cynical opportunism for his wrong turn – or that his critical skills have been eaten away by too much Johnny Walker Black Label – such critics often seem to think that if he had been worth a lot in the first place, he would not have ended up there where he did it.
None of this makes sense to me. There are too many aging radicals who like whiskey almost as much as Hitchens for this last statement to be as telling. As for Islamophobia, Hitchens’ increasing willingness to see the American empire as a force for good began not with an intervention that bombed Muslims. As any regular reader of his column in this magazine should know, it began with the wars in the former Yugoslavia, where the United States repeatedly intervened against Serb Christians … on behalf of the predominantly Muslim populations in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Cynical opportunism? When he pleaded for the invasion of Iraq in 2002, he was too to quarrel with Andrew Sullivan on C-SPAN on whether or not Palestinian “terrorism” should be condemned. The Palestinians had a legitimate complaint, Hitch insisted, and could not be lumped together with al-Qaeda. Who exactly was he flattering with this combination of positions?
I would argue that in the “end of history” atmosphere of the 1990s, Hitchens simply gave up hope of a socialist alternative to the status quo. He had traveled the world as a radical journalist and befriended dissidents in countries like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. If global socialism was not on the table, it at least raised hope democratically Revolutions to overthrow such regimes. His disastrous mistake was his belief that the 82nd Airborne could spread such revolutions. In practice, only chaos and bloodshed and anti-American resentment spread.