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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser