Hitch-22 is more interesting for what it leaves out
Halfway through the memoirs of British leftist turned Bush-supporter Christopher Hitchens, the political narrative just falls apart. That’s fitting, argues Guy Rundle.
OK, everyone’s had their fun with this, and there seems little point going over old ground, but let’s have a brief recap. If you don’t much like Christopher Hitchens in short bursts, either in form or content, you’ll loathe Hitch-22. Even if you do have a taste for his work, you may well find this too much, like a three-course meal composed entirely of plum pudding.
All Hitchiana is here, from the hybrid faux Edwardian prose that his US audience can’t get enough of, to the retrospective canonisation of a few Oxbridge mates as the conscience of their generation, a propensity with big names that is not so much mere dropping as carpet-bombing, and much much more. You don’t need to be told again that it features repeated and bewildering excursions on the drunken word-games that the North Soho gang (Hitchens, Amis senior, Amis junior, James Fenton, Ian McEwan, with Clive James as the gimp) once got up to – substituting the c-word for ‘man’ in book titles (‘A Cunt For All Seasons’ etc) – nor about the revelations of a schoolboy homosexuality that extended sporadically into university years, taking in a couple of ‘future junior ministers in Margaret Thatcher’s government’ along the way, or the aside on drinking whose shock value (half a bottle of wine at lunch and again at dinner) once again confirms that this release is aimed at Hitchens’ transatlantic fanbase.
The general implication is that Hitchens has been sprawlingly, insouciantly confessional in a manner usually described as ‘appalling’, and that this is a measure of the man. Where others would be circumspect about youthful extravagance and folly, the Hitch has let it all hang out.
Nice story, and it fits well with the image that Hitchens has cultivated in the US, where the value of puritan continence is shared by right and left. In a land where neocon and liberal pundits will appear, impeccably coiffed, on news shows at 6am to knock the hell out of each other in measured soundbites, Hitchens is the great other, staggering in half-shaven and possibly unslept, his ideas and opinions as unkempt as the vaguely colonial cotton suit he appears to favour these days.
It’s bollocks of course. For anyone interested in Christopher Hitchens as an influential political and ideological figure over the past 20 years, and who has a low tolerance for knowing who was up who, Hitch-22 is more striking for what it omits, or actively conceals: that is, the trajectory and reasoning whereby an undoubtably committed and active member of the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party moves by stages to a position not merely of Atlanticist liberal imperialism but of actively campaigning for the re-election of George W Bush; who begins as an internationalist and anti-militarist and ends by finding the greatest nobility among the ‘men and women of our [ie, the US’s] armed forces’; who musters all the forces of polemic to assault any belief in God, however abstract or philosophical that may be, yet who clung for years to third- and fourth-hand tales of alleged attempts by Saddam Hussein to acquire yellowcake in Niger, until the argument was as polished and petrified as the foreskin of a saint in a Spanish cathedral.
Consciously or otherwise, Hitch-22 is an attempt to avoid any real reflection on his political journey, even though it is that political journey that serves as a through line for the memoir as a whole. The fact that the book falls apart towards the end, becoming a series of disconnected essays, asides and rebuttals, is, as he and I and probably you would once have said, no coincidence at all. Hitch-22 collapses structurally because so too did the politics and ideas of Hitch, sixtysomething, its author, over the period it describes.
For the political reader, Hitchens emerges in the chapters on his time at Balliol. The book begins with an extended piece on the suicide of his mother and her son’s trip to recover her body in Athens on the very days in 1973 when the Greek junta was overthrown by its own right, who stormed the city’s barricaded polytechnic. But this really serves as prologue for an encounter with his father, the commander, a Second World War naval officer, pensioned off early, obliging him to spend the remainder of his life as an accountant at various schools, married to, and cuckolded by, a lively and frustrated wife. A precocious reader, Hitchens inclines towards Labour at school, but is spotted by key International Socialist (IS) figure Peter Sedgewick, after heckling a hardcore Maoist at a meeting.
The rest is History: a period of seven or eight years stretching into the arid 1970s, in which the Balliol butterfly combined the conscious acceptance of boredom in the necessary meeting with a series of brilliant encounters at the Oxford Union, the soirées of Maurice Bowra, and so on. At some point the activism lapses, then the Marxism, and finally the leftism – but the strong imputation is that the IS’s key analysis of the Soviet bloc as ‘state capitalist’ in nature, as opposed to the various degenerate/deformed workers’ state formulations of the other Trotskyist groups, served as a moral and political foundation for his later, self-proclaimed refusal to compromise with corrupt or vicious regimes that had branded themselves as of the left.
In this respect, there is a good chapter – one of the best in the book – on an early visit to Cuba, its quality remarkable because of how comparatively direct, plain and unHitchensesque is the style it is written in. The reason for that is obvious – it’s a record of a real political encounter and rethink, where the residual Third World romanticism afflicting even the hardest-headed IS cadre was yielding to a realisation that Cuba had all but become an example of tropicana Brezhnevism.
It’s after that that things start to get murky. At some point in his passage through the mainstream UK left media to his departure for the US in the 1980s, Hitchens became either a lapsed activist, or decisively rejected IS/SWP politics, or one then the other. This passage in his life lies across a crucial period in the British (and Western) left, one in which people hitherto working in union took radically different decisions about the nature of politics, capitalism and the left itself. Yet of this we get nothing, save for a word-picture of a community protest meeting in north London, to suggest the left as it once was, before it mysteriously disappeared. But on what exactly happened to Hitchens’ politics, there is little detail.
The most cynical and least interesting interpretation would be that he slowly realised that the left was a losing bet, and quietly made his excuses and slipped out the back. The interpretation that better explains his later politics is that he took from the IS/SWP’s oppositionality, not a mode of doing politics, but a form of political moralising that rapidly becomes a tiresome and inecessant judgement on the taking and wielding of power itself. Thus in the early Oxford Union years we continually encounter revolutionaries, activists, writers and so on held to be bursting with brilliance, only to be tagged with the premonitory phrase about the thugs, monsters or moral failures they became. Overwhelmingly this is because they took the power they were campaigning for, and having done so, had to make some grisly choices. But for Hitchens, the result is an endlessly repeated political Fall, in which oppositionality becomes a series of impossible standards.
In itself, this reading by Hitchens would merely be priggish. But when combined with a hunger for big History, and an inherited need to be not merely a part of it, but, well, a commander, it rapidly becomes hypocritical and narcissistic. Readers should be warned not to start yelling at this book – at points where the cheerleader for the Iraq invasion records his moral horror at the US Cambodia and Hanoi bombings, for example. There are 400 pages to get through, and it only gets worse. Through the 1970s and 80s, the political puritanism steers Hitchens towards the very un-Marxist focus on individual baddies. Some of these are plausible, like Henry Kissinger. Others are ridiculous, like the Clintons, a pair of average political opportunists who, in the chapter ‘No One Left To Lie To’, come out looking worse than Pol Pot. By the time we get to a chapter on the Rushdie affair – one praised by critics, for reasons that elude me – the modus operandi is well established: a review of the debate, its conflation with Nazism and appeasement thereof, and a roll call of those public intellectuals who fell short, with little argument around their position. It is difficult to dispel the sense of a rank of men being upbraided by, well, a commander.
Hitchens’ post-9/11 shifts are well-known, and here he not only recaps the period but provides a separate argument for the choices he made. There’s a fair degree of rewriting – pre-9/11, he regarded Bill Clinton’s bombing of Sudan’s al-Shifaya pharmaceutical plant (its only one, erroneously marked as a chemical weapons facility) as a cynical crime sans pareil, given the long-term death toll it would create by disrupted supplies. Post-9/11, he spent a lot of time attacking exactly that position as the worst sort of Western self-loathing and moral equivalence. Guess which part of that gets recorded here.
Yet above and beyond that, what he signally fails to do is provide an analysis of how he went from the Orwellian-left position he rather seems to hope he was bodying forth to the quasi-religious commitment he made to the Bush administration even when it was becoming clear that the War on Terror and in Iraq was not merely morally vacuous but politically and intellectually so as well – save for the increasing visibility of an evangelical narrative (‘my God is stronger than their God’) beneath it.
It’s no sin for a left oppositionalist to shift positions. Quite the contrary. But it’s something else entirely to do so without a visible, logical process, a praxis, and to instead surrender to overweening psychological and existential need. As Hitchens has pretty much admitted in a recent Guardian interview with Decca Aikenhead, this is more or less what happened in the years when he became a spruiker for the war, egged on to ever-more ‘courageous’ acts, such as remarking that the only problem with the siege of Fallujah (most of whose victims were civilians) was that not nearly enough were killed.
That was a low point, but for my money Hitchens’ true nadir came in the mid-2000s in the unassuming surrounds of BBC Radio 4, when he appeared on the biographical series ‘Great Lives’ – nominating as his hero, Trotsky. So far, so good, but under Matthew Parris’s fairly mild questioning about Trotsky’s ruthlessness in defence of the October Revolution, the Hitch’s composure failed him. He eventually stormed out of the studio with the parting remark ‘you wouldn’t understand – you’re a conservative’.
It’s a petty matter, but such a failure of Enlightenment commitment to debate throws Hitchens’ scorn around religion into a different light. If one Russian revolutionary now swept away by history can inspire such quasi-sacred regard, what does it say about a haughty disdain for the passionate attachment others have to an altogether more transcendental proposition, such as Allah?
We know the answer, of course, and so does the Hitch. Whatever the logic of his political passage until the Bush era, it decomposed into a monstrous narcissism characteristic of the whole period and the pro-war left within it. It was a tangle of failed Gods and failing powers, bad analysis and a near desperation that there had been no world-scale moral challenge that had put iron in the soul of an earlier generation. That the book should spend so much of its time on the silly games and sentimental affections of young men – and exclude entirely any record of transformative relationships with women, surely the mark of true adulthood in a heterosexual man – is crucial to its project, which is to forestall real self-reflection of any type at all cost. For the young Navy brat, lifted up by Marx and Maurice Bowra to the promised land where all politics is puritanism by other means, Hitch-22 is a triumph of forgetting over the other thing. Vanity fair indeed.
Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 Presidential Election. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)
Hitch 22: A Memoir, by Christopher Hitchens, is published by Atlantic Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)