Christopher Hitchens, the enemy of the totalitarian

He had no equal in contemporary Anglo-American letters; there are followers and disciples but no hei

He had no equal in contemporary Anglo-American letters; there are followers and disciples but no heir apparent.

I wrote this for the Daily Beast this morning, drawing on a review-essay I published in the Financial Times a few weeks ago.

In his final interview, conducted with Richard Dawkins and published in the Christmas issue of the New Statesman, Christopher Hitchens, who has died from cancer at the age of 62, spoke of how the one consistency for him in his long, four-decade career as a writer was in being against the totalitarian, on the left and on the right. "The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy - the one that's absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes." And the ultimate totalitarian was God, against whom (or the notion of whom) he was raging until the end.

Hitchens himself was many things: a polemicist, reporter, author, rhetorician, militant atheist, drinker, name-dropper, and raconteur. He was also an absolutist. He liked a clear, defined target against which to take aim and fire; he knew what he wanted to write against and he did so with all the force and power of his formidable erudition and articulacy. Hitchens was an accomplished and prolific writer, but an even better speaker: his perfect sentences cascaded and tumbled, unstoppably. He was one of our greatest contemporary debaters, taking on all-comers on all subjects, except sport, in which he professed to have no interest at all.

Born in 1949, he was a recognisable late-1960s archetype, radicalised and formed by the counter-cultural spirit of the turbulent era of the Vietnam war and the sexual revolution. (He reminded me of Philip Roth's David Kepesh: celebrity journalist, upmarket talkshow star, libertine, hyper-confident scourge of bourgeois respectability and conventional behaviour.) The son of a Tory naval officer and a Jewish mother who committed suicide in a bizarre love pact, Hitchens was educated at the Leys School in Cambridge, and at Oxford, where he joined the far-left, anti-Stalinist sect, the International Socialists (forerunner of the Socialist Workers party), and agitated at demonstrations by day and romped and cavorted with the daughters, and sometimes sons, of the landed classes by night. He remained a member until the late 1970s and, long after that, continued to defend the Old Man, as he and comrades called Trotsky. If there was a parliamentary road to socialism, he didn't seem much interested in it in those early days, though towards the end of his life he claimed that the British Labour Party was "my party".

After university, Hitchens worked on the New Statesman, under the editorships of Richard Crossman and Anthony Howard, before he moved to Washington in his early thirties. He was operating then very much in the shadows cast by his luminously gifted friends and fellow New Statesman staffers, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and James Fenton. Other friends, including Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, were also beginning to establish themselves as unusually ambitious writers of fiction. But there was a feeling among that group of clever young men -- with their smart book chat, and bolshy political opinions -- that the Hitch, as they called him, was a powerful intellect and journalist but a mediocre stylist.

"To evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the twentieth century has been the self-imposed challenge of his work," Amis once wrote of Saul Bellow, in what served as a self-description and statement of intent. Amis had his own exalted style from the beginning; Hitchens, certain in his opinions but less so as stylist, took much longer to find his.

Amis, in Koba the Dread, his book about Stalin and the British left's historic reluctance to condemn the crimes of the Soviet Union and its satellites, suggests that his old friend (their relationship was a kind of unconsummated marriage, Amis said, though Hitch would have happily consummated it at one stage) began to improve and grow as a writer, his prose gaining in "burnish and authority", only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as if before then he had been ideologically and stylistically constrained by a self-imposed demand to hold a fixed ideological line, even at the expense of truth-telling.

I once had a drink with Hitchens in the mid-1990s after we were introduced by the former Conservative MP George Walden. We were in the basement premises of Auberon Waugh's old Academy Club, in Soho, London, and the air was rancid with cigarette smoke. He sat opposite me at a table, chain-smoking and drinking whisky, and he spoke in long, rolling sentences as he recited, from memory, large chunks of W.H. Auden's poetry. I felt battered by his erudition - can you keep up! Hitchens exuded what I thought then was a superb worldliness. His voice was deep and absurdly suave - and, in manner and attitude, he closely resembled his old friend Amis, both more than half in love with their own cleverness and verbal fluency. He was engaging, yet I found his confidence disturbing: he knew what he knew and no one could persuade him otherwise.

An absence of doubt defines his work. His weaknesses are overstatement, especially when writing about what he despises (Islamism, God, pious moralizing of all kinds), self-righteous indignation ("shameful" and "shame", employed accusatorily, are favoured words in his lexicon), narcissism, and failure to acknowledge or accept when he is wrong. His redeeming virtues are his sardonic wit, polymathic range, good literary style and his fearlessness.

Until the beginning of this century, Hitchens played the role of Keith Richards to Amis's Mick Jagger. He was the more dissolute, the heavier drinker and lesser writer, very much the junior partner in an ostentatious double-act. Amis was a multimillionaire literary superstar, "the most influential writer of his generation" as he put it. He wrote in the High Style, after Bellow, and declared war on cliché. Hitchens, by contrast, wrote journalism and quick-fire columns and was not averse to using cliché or ready-made formulation. Even in his final interview, with Dawkins, he described himself as a "jobbing hack". "If I was strident, it doesn't matter ... I bang my drum."

After the September 11 attacks, Hitchens remade himself as a belligerent supporter, in his writings and through public debates and his many appearances on American television, of the so-called war on terror. In the arguments over dodgy dossiers and unilateral declarations of war, he sided with George W. Bush, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Tony Blair rather than with his old friends at the Nation. He had, at last, found his grand anti-totalitarian cause. A robust Manichean, he denounced "Islamofascism", a catch-all term that was so loose, generalised and opaque in its application as to be meaningless. The Taliban, Iranian Shia theocrats, Sunni al-Qaeda operatives, British Muslim jihadists, Hamas, Hizbollah - in spite of their different origins and distinct socio-political circumstances, they were all "Islamofascists".

Hitchens believed his mission was comparable to that of Orwell and those who presciently warned of, and wrote against, the dangers of appeasing both communist and fascist totalitarianism in the 1930s. He became a hero to neoconservatives and the pro-war left, the leader of the pack: "The Hitch", the journalist-as-brand-name.

How will he be remembered? In many ways the comparisons made between him and Orwell, to whom he returns again and again, as evangelical Christians return to Jesus ("What would George do?"), are false. Unlike Orwell, he has no one definitive book, no Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four or Homage to Catalonia. He is not a philosopher and has made no original contribution to intellectual thought. As an atheist, his anti-religious tract, God Is Not Great, is elegant but derivative. His polemical denunciations and pamphlets on powerful individuals, such as Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger, feel already dated, stranded in place and time, good journalism but not literature.

Ultimately, I suspect, he will be remembered more for his prodigious output and for his swaggering, rhetorical style - as well as for his lifestyle: the louche cosmopolitan and gadfly, the itinerant and sardonic man of letters and indefatigable raconteur.

The culture no longer throws up people like the Hitch. Today, he is very much a man apart. He has no equal in contemporary Anglo-American letters; there are followers and disciples but no heir apparent.

A.J. Liebling used to say that: "I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better." He could have been describing Christopher Hitchens, who may have been silenced but whose essays and books will continue to be read and who, through the Internet, will be watched and listened to as he went about his business, provoking, challenging, amusing and stridently engaging with the ways of the world, always taking a position, never giving ground. The Hitch, the only one.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

Getty.
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.