Unhitched: the Trial of Christopher Hitchens
Verso, 160pp, £9.99
With the defendant “in absentia”, as Richard Seymour phrases it, there are some who will deem this book to be in poor taste. But Christopher Hitchens, who rightly regarded the injunction not to “speak ill of the dead” as an invitation to hypocrisy, would not have been one of them. For Hitchens, it was both a duty and a pleasure to combat the sanitised memorials that greeted the passing of his opponents. “If you gave [Jerry] Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox,” was his pithy verdict on the late US televangelist.
His only proviso, he told me when I interviewed him for the New Statesman in 2010 , was: “You should never say anything that you weren’t prepared to say when the person was around to defend themselves.” But as the author of a 2005 piece entitled “The genocidal imagination of Christopher Hitchens”, Seymour can hardly be accused of concealing his loathing of the polemicist.
Confirming the adage that the left seeks traitors and the right seeks converts, we find Hitchens arraigned for the crime of apostasy. The sense of fratricide is enhanced by the book’s title (a deliberate echo of Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger) and its publisher, Verso, the radical imprint responsible for putting out Hitchens’s indictments of Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Kissinger. A Trotskyist in his youth (his party of choice, the International Socialists, was the fore - runner of Seymour’s Socialist Workers Party), Hitchens, the author claims, ended his life as an apologist for imperialism and its most toxic representative, the Bush administration.
One is reluctant to listen to lectures of this kind from a member of a party that uncritically aligned itself with Hezbollah and Hamas (both of which make George W Bush look positively libertarian) during the 2006 Lebanon war, not least one whose prose is as tediously inflated as Seymour’s. To take only the most egregious example, he writes early in the book of Hitchens’s “tendency to opportunistically strip-mine the cynosures of his old faith in order to defend his new alignments in the conjuncture of the ‘war on terror’”.
Seymour undermines his case from the outset by deploying “left” as a synonym for “things I like” and “right” as a synonym for “things I don’t”. In common with Michael Foot’s Labour Party, Hitchens supported the Falklands war on the anti-totalitarian grounds that it would lead to the downfall of the Galtieri regime (a prediction that proved entirely correct). However, the myopically anti-imperialist Seymour can only view this as evidence of Hitchens’s jingoism.
He concedes that Hitchens, unlike self-declared apostates such as Paul Johnson, David Horowitz and Melanie Phillips, recanted almost none of his early positions. Hitchens never stopped campaigning for Henry Kissinger to be brought to justice, for the abolition of the death penalty and for Israel to surrender the Occupied Territories.
For Seymour, Hitchens’s enduring leftism was but a rhetorical veneer for rampant imperialism. Such a judgement ignores the extent to which his stances remained leftist in substance, rather than merely style. Hitchens was wrong – unforgivably wrong – about Iraq but for the best of reasons. His support for the invasion arose out of his long-standing solidarity with the country’s Kurds (see his long 1992 piece for National Geographic, “The Struggle of the Kurds”, collected in Love, Poverty and War) and his belief that even war was preferable to the survival of Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime (“a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave beneath it”). Only the most unreflective leftist would conclude that there is no reasonable debate to be had on these points.
Hitchens, we are told, became a “flack”, a “courtier”, an “amanuensis” of the Bush administration. If so, the president should have ordered a replacement. Among other things, Hitchens acted as a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought against the administration for its warrantless wiretapping programme, accused Bush of “near-impeachable irresponsibility in the matter of postwar planning” and denounced him as an “idiotic and psychically damaged Sabbath-fanatic”. One searches in vain for any mention of this in Seymour’s hatchet job.
A more apposite criticism of Hitchens is that having no patience for social democratic gradualism, he wrote little of the unglamorous but worthy duty of improving the lot of the poorest. His eventual conclusion that a leader’s character mattered more than his or her beliefs was a profoundly conservative one. When I asked him for his opinion of David Cameron, he replied: “He seems content-free to me. Never had a job, except in PR, and it shows. People ask, ‘What do you think of him?’ And my answer is: ‘He doesn’t make me think.’” This judgement is now celebrated but I was dismayed by it. Did Hitchens have nothing to say about Cameron’s austerity economics or his sinister alliance with Europe’s far right?
Yet there was no more formidable defender of the Enlightenment values of reason, secularism and internationalism. Any left that is worthy of the name will seek to learn from such a figure, not impugn him. But if one seeks evidence of why Hitchens so often felt the need to deny this association, Seymour’s embittered polemic provides ample proof.