Hitchens: from revolutionary student to Byronic celebrity
Michael Fitzpatrick recalls his first meeting with Christopher Hitchens 40 years ago, when there was more to him than flashy posturing.
I first met Christopher Hitchens some 40 years ago in the upstairs room of the Port Mahon, the pub in east Oxford where the local branch of the International Socialists held its weekly meetings.
He was by a long way the best student stump orator I have ever heard and his political intelligence and debating skills were immediately apparent. When I was arrested on an anti-Vietnam War demo, Chris (as he was known in these circles) turned up for the subsequent court hearing. It was a gesture of solidarity I much appreciated at the time, and typical of the qualities of loyalty and generosity to which many of his later friends have paid tribute since his death from cancer last week.
I was saddened to read, on the evening before hearing news of his death, what turned out to be Hitchens’ final interview, with Richard Dawkins in the New Statesman. I was reminded of Walter Benjamin’s observation that the friendship between Franz Kafka and his philistine biographer Max Brod was ‘a question mark he chose to put in the margins of his life’. I wish I could say that Hitchens expressed a glimmer of the talent that could have made him, not merely a successful polemical journalist, but the serious contributor to the cause of revolutionary social change that he once aspired to be. It is true that, even in his state of terminal decline, Hitchens raised a cautionary finger to some of Dawkins’ sillier postures. But for the most part, their exchanges in the New Statesman are self-regarding, pompous, petty.
In defiance, not only of his socialist past but of his professed commitment to humanism, Hitchens has long endorsed the grim fatalism of Dawkins’ evolutionary biology, an outlook – dubbed ‘Darwinitis’ by Raymond Tallis – that has brought ‘atheism into disrepute’. (1)
Like many activists of the radical left of the 1960s, Hitchens lost his way when the radical upsurge lost momentum in the 1970s. His autobiography documents his journey from his roots in the provincial English middle classes, through journalistic attachments to Socialist Worker and the New Statesman to his transatlantic success as writer for the Nation and Vanity Fair (2). The son of a naval commander, Hitchens retained, despite his espoused internationalism, a streak of patriotism and even, as later events confirmed, a sympathy for military intervention abroad (views not unique on the British left).
Hitchens’ education at an English public school reflected his parents’ social aspirations, enduringly expressed in his preposterous name-dropping, as well as in his lifelong affinity for (apparently exclusively male) friends from a similar background. In a revealing aside in a column republished in his most recent collection of essays, Hitchens refers to Arthur Scargill as ‘the coal miners’ thuggish leader’, a description that suggests his mother’s snobbish attitude towards the sort of rough boys she wished Christopher to avoid by going to public school (3).
The problem with Scargill – which neither Hitchens nor the rest of the left ever adequately grasped – was not his demeanour or behaviour, but the fact that his Labourist politics, even in a militant form, could not advance the miners’ cause against the Thatcher government.
Since Hitchens’ death, many commentators have argued that he abandoned the left in response to the events of 11 September 2001, leading to his subsequent endorsement of Western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Hitchens had already given up on the possibility of forging an alternative to Labourism 20 years earlier, in response to the defeats of the labour movement in the ‘winter of discontent’ of 1978-79 and the subsequent electoral victory of Margaret Thatcher.
By 1982, Hitchens, having transferred to the USA, was beating the drum for the British naval task force despatched by Thatcher to reoccupy the Falkland Islands, arguing that ‘under no circumstances could anybody put up with being pushed around by a crew of Buenos Aires brownshirts’ (4). This promiscuous inflation of the concept of fascism was to become a familiar theme: for Hitchens and his clique of supporters, every dictator or demagogue (Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Osama bin Laden) now became the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler, and anybody who questioned this demonisation was an appeaser.
Some critics have characterised Hitchens as a romantic, driven by ‘the quest for excitement and a sense of feeling at the heart of things’, particularly in his travels to southern Europe and the Middle East and elsewhere in the 1980s. Photographs of Hitchens in different war zones indeed recall the famous portrait of Lord Byron in Albanian national costume at the time of the Greek war of independence against Ottoman rule. With his sexual libertinism and his appetite for excess, Hitchens seemed to aspire to a Byronic cult of celebrity and the reputation of being ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. In a review, he seized on this characteristically Byronic declaration with evident relish:
‘The great object of life is sensation – to feel that we exist – even though in pain – it is this “craving void” which drives us to Gaming – to Battle – to Travel – to intemperate but keenly felt pursuits of every description whose principal attraction is the agitation inseparable from their accomplishment.’ (5)
But, by the 1990s, Hitchens’ inclination towards self-indulgent involvement in other people’s wars was no mere personal foible, but reflected the wider outlook of the Western elites. Hitchens was an early exponent of the ‘journalism of attachment’, which became a major feature of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, as reporters abandoned any pretence of objectivity in favour of producing propaganda calling for Western intervention. The spirit of moral fervour articulated by Hitchens and others, who reduced this conflict (and others) to contests between forces identified as ‘Good’ (Bosnian Muslims, Tutsis in Rwanda) and those designated as ‘Evil’ (Serbs, Hutus) helped to justify a new moral mission for our increasingly demoralised society. It was only a matter of time before Hitchens was campaigning in support of Bush and Blair and their invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
As the post-Cold War years continued mercilessly to expose the failure of both left and right to maintain any significant purchase on events, the way was open for a bold, enterprising writer like Hitchens to make his mark. As the blocs, classes and parties lost their clout, it was the nimble individual, the personality, the celebrity – on screen and net – who could make a bigger splash. The moment of the iLiberal had come. Hitchens, ever the opportunist, readily grasped the sclerotic inadequacies of the left, so he took lazy refuge in the jejune conceptions of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘reason’ purveyed by an increasingly cynical and desperate right. Above all, in its Manichean moralism he found the ideal backdrop for the elegant posturing, bogus heroism and insatiable narcissism which became his tiresome trademark. What a waste.
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