The trouble with Hitchens

July 14, 2010 at 9:22 pm (Jim D, literature, Pro-War Left, socialism, wild man)

Tom Unterrainer of Workers Liberty on the strengths and weaknesses of Chris Hitchens. It will, no doubt, enrage those who love The Dude and those who hate him, in equal measure:


“Any number of questions popped into my mind whilst reading ‘Hitch-22’ – Christopher Hitchens’ recently published memoir – but two in particular kept coming back. The first: was Hitchens really ever ‘one of us’? The second: would it be easier to convince a Hitchens admirer or one of his mortally hostile ‘left wing’ critics of my politics? Why did these questions keep coming back?

“There’s an enviable amount to admire in Hitchens’ journalistic and other written output; some of the positions he defends overlap with most rational socialists’ instinctual sympathies and when all is said and done, there are few public figures who take up the polemical cudgels with such entertainingly brutal effect.

“But at the same time as being an outspoken critic of fascists old and new, a defender of minority national rights and unrelentingly hostile to religious mysticism of all types, Hitchens has been decisively wrong – and it seems to me, in this book at least, grossly disingenuous – on Bush Jnr, the invasion of Iraq and the ‘War on Terror’ more generally.”

Read the full article here


  1. resistor said,

    ‘The first: was Hitchens really ever ‘one of us’?’

    I think he was, and still is.

    ‘The second: would it be easier to convince a Hitchens admirer or one of his mortally hostile ‘left wing’ critics of my politics?’

    The former, as you are a Hitchens admirer yourself

    ‘Why did these questions keep coming back?’

    You are mentally ill and are hearing voices. Get help now.

  2. John Palmer said,

    Tom Unterrainer – in his Hitchens apologia – denounces those socialists who stand with Islamic radicals against oppression. He calls in aid important figures on the left such as Hal Draper and Julius Jacobson. Now I had the great privilege of meeting and discussing with both of these principled socialists on a number of occasions. They were both ferociously anti-Zionist and, as a consequence I fear, would have been denounced by both Workers Liberty and Harry’s Place were they alive and writing on the Middle East today.

  3. James Bloodworth said,

    Considering that I would probably be classed as someone who “loves” Hitchens, I was pleasantly surprised by the article in that it didn’t adopt the usual vile Stalinist tactic of simply screaming that Hitchens is a “neo con” etc, and engaged in a mature criticism of his ideas rather than his drinking habits.

    I don’t particularly feel that the position Hitchens has adopted is even a move to the right. For me it’s more a case of the radical left-alternative not being economically credible any longer. I know the writer would disagree, but I would simply ask which practical and implementable socialist economic policies any self-respecting leftist would seriously favour – nationalisation of the economy? Really? Are you sure about that? And what would make this efficient in a way that has not been possible in every other country it has been tried before?

    Personally I really wish would for something such as a planned economy to be functionable, as I think would Hitchens; it’s just that it’s hard to really believe in that any longer based on historical experience.

    One has to be honest with one’s self. A shuffle off to the right tis not necessary to reach such a conclusion.

    There is also Hitchens’s atheism and recent battles with religion which I can’t really see as being anything other than a continuation of the Marxist and enlightenment tradition. If we are looking for those who have abandoned the left it is most definitely those wiseacres who spend their time carping politically correct mantras about Islam being “liberating” and a “religion of peace” solely because some of its adherants have browns skins and are anti-American.

  4. Jim Denham said,

    John (Palmer): If you think this,

    “Where Hitchens invested his fury at the atrocities of 9/11 in generally unquestioning support for a right-wing, religion infused administration with a distinctly questionable democratic mandate, socialists – at least the ones who understood what actually happened that day in September – refused to dump their politics. Where Hitchens polemicised and organised around the idea that the US and her allies could bring democracy and stability to places like Iraq – in advance of any actual evidence and in the face of a rotten record elsewhere, a record the Hitchens himself has criticised in other places – socialists refused to invest their trust and political energies in any such force”,

    …is a “Hitchens apologia”, then you have a different understanding of what the word “apologia” means to mine.

    As for Draper and Jacobsen, I think the point is that as consistent Third Campists, they maintained independent working class politics and opposed liquidation into the “second camp” of Stalinism that so many “orthodox” Trotskyists of the day collapsed into – just as the Pabloites and the SWP today align themselves with Islamic clerical fascism.

    The article nowhere even mentions “Zionism” or even the Middle East and I fail to see the relevance of bringing them up in this context.

    Btw, John: I’d always assumed that whatever our differences, you remained a Third Campist…

  5. Bruce said,


    It might help this discussion if you were precise about what you mean by “stand[ing] with Islamic radicals against oppression.” Which radicals exactly and what particular form of oppression? Much of the problem with the mainstream left is that oppression is just or primarily identified with US imperialism. I know from your stand on Kosovo that you do not accept this, so what exactly are you saying? Are you denouncing Unterrainer for what he says about the SWP?

    If this is just having a go at the AWL, maybe you could point to what exactly we say – particularly in that article – that you find objectionable and then we could discuss that. Rather than making vague assertions.

  6. John Palmer said,

    Jim Denman/Bruce: I thought the Tom Untrainer article was more than a little disengenuous. For example TE compared Hitchens unfavourably with Schactman. Both had periods when they were socialist activists. I accept that Schactman (Mark 1) was more of a serious intellectual than Chris Hitchens./ But BOTH abandoned Third Camp socialism for a compromise with US capital (US imperialism if you will). On the other hand Hal Draper and Julius Jacobson are given much more favourable references. But surely honesty should demand that Untrainer acknowledge that both men by a life long and fierce opposition to Zionism had a very different stance than “Workers Liberty.”

  7. John Palmer said,

    I should add one point. I did indeed support the Bosniaks in their struggle against both Serb and Croat versions of ethnic nationalism – not least because the Bosnian cause rallied Bosnian Orthodox (Serbs), Catholics (Croats), and Jews as well as Muslims. I also supported the Kosovars right to resist Serb ethnic cleansing (including their right to see arms from wherever they could – on the same lines as the right of the Irish 1916 insurrectionists to seek support from where ever they could (including German imperialism). But none of that implies support for NATO’s military intervention in the region and more than James Connolly would have supported German imperialism’s war aims.

  8. Jim Denham said,

    John: define what you understand to be “Zionism” and we can have a serious discussion.

  9. TomU said,

    Sat beside my computer is a collection of articles written by Draper for ‘Labor Action’ and ‘New International’ titled “Zionism, Israel and the Arabs”. Although I don’t agree with all of Draper’s formulations, I’m broadly sympathetic to his line. However, I’d stake money on the prediction that your average SWPer reading these articles today would draw the conclusion that Draper was some kind of Zionist – which of course, like me, he was not. So, to repeat Jim’s request: what do you mean by “Zionism”?

  10. John Palmer said,

    Jim D/Tom U – Lets dot this way. Can you cite any article, comment or speech by anyone in the Socialist Review/International Socialists/SWP tradition that states, suggests or hints that Hal Draper was “some kind of zionist”? The SWP is capable of many stupidities (to whit Gilad Altzmon) but not that.

  11. TomU said,


    For the SWP to do that would force them to look seriously at the whole Independent Socialist tradition – something I doubt they’re prepared to do. I think the problem is that very few SWPers have actually read anything by Draper (or any other ISL writer) beyond ‘The Two Souls of Socialism’ … and even then, they totally miss the point!

    So think of it this way: if I waved Draper’s “How to defend Israel” article in front of a SWP member, what do you suppose they would say? If they managed to get onto the second paragraph … what then?

    How do you think they’d react to “A new state has been set up. A people have declared that they want to live under their own government and determine their own national destiny … They have done this in the teeth of opposition – direct, concealed or weaselly – of the imperialist capitals. And invading their defenses and threatening their independence came the reactionary onslaught of some of the most backward and reactionary kingships and dynasties of the world …” Do you think the ‘Z’ word would fail to emerge at some point?

    Suppose they make it through the next few paragraphs where Draper spells out what he would like to have happened. Draper pulls no punches in his criticisms of the “Zionist leadership”. We should expect nothing else. But then, he proposes: “In this conflict … we not only support the Palestine Jews’ right to self-determination but draw the necessary conclusions from that position; for full recognition of the Jewish state by our own government; for lifting the embargo on arms to Israel; for defense of the Jewish state against the Arab invasion in the present circumstances.” I can imagine the reaction … can you not?

    I’m not convinced by the rest of Draper’s argument in this article, but only because events proved his hopes and aspirations wrong. When he ended “in the present circumstances” I think it was because he hoped that the Arab nationalist movements would move to the left and ‘deal with’ the reactionary regimes he criticised. In this context, do you think the “present circumstances” are any better now than then? I’d say no. Draper’s writing on Israel is still worth a read because he spells out the now largely forgotten method of drawing conclusions from analysis, rather than unthinking repetition and regurgitation.

    This is all really beside the point, I feel. The point – demonstrated by the need to respond to your attempted slur – is that people with your political baggage cannot seem to help themselves: we always end up on the same, grossly misunderstood and misrepresented topic [shrug].


  12. John Palmer said,

    TomU – Why don’t we let Hal Draper speak for himself and let readers judge as between our judgements on Hal Draper’s politics –

    By the way if you reject my characterisation of Hal Draper is an anti-zionist what on earth do you think of what Sean Matgamna of Workers’ Liberty meant when he wrote – “…Draper, I think, did contribute more than a little to the Zionophobe conquest of so much of the left.”?

  13. Jim Denham said,

    John: I agree, let’s allow Draper speak for himself:

    “A new state has been set up. A people have declared that they want to live under their own government and determine their own national destiny. They have taken a blank check made out to the Right of Self-Determination and have signed their name to it: Israel. And they have sought to cash it in.

    “They have done this in the teeth of the opposition – direct, concealed or weaselly – of the imperialist capitals. And invading their defenses and threatening their independence came the reactionary onslaught of some of the most backward and reactionary kingships and dynasts of the world, the semi-feudal oppressors of the Arab people.

    “This reactionary invasion was launched with but one end in view – precisely to deprive the Israeli people of their right to self-determination.”

    Check out the article that quote comes from, “How to defend Israel” by Draper and published in the New International, July 1948:

  14. John Palmer said,

    Jim – You must be a little desperate to quote Hal Draper in 1948 before the full character of the Israeli state had manifested itself. But how about this from 1957 when Draper wrote the most excoriating denunciation of the violent, racist anti-Arabism of the Israeli state from the very foundations of Israel and concluded: “This is also what is disturbing about one of the constant refrains of those Israeli liberals who do tell the truth about the Arab minority. They tend to pass the guilt off onto the backs of “the Jewish people.” The reader can see a typical example of this in the quotation from Haaretz’s Moshe Keren on page 20-21: how could “the Jewish people” do this to “a helpless minority” when it has itself been the victim of robbery and exploitation and has so often vowed itself to righteousness and justice?

    One must respect the motives of this breast-beating, but the content is distressing. It was not “the Jewish people” who did this. In other mouths, such a sweepingly false and slanderous accusation would sound sinister indeed. It was not “the Jewish people” but the Zionist authorities, the Zionist movement, and the Zionist government that bear the responsibility; and the difference is enormous.

    Such sweeping attribution of guilt to a whole people, for crimes committed by some among them, is more familiar as a methodological habit of anti-Semites and other racists. It is dangerous. In the present case the conscientious Zionist liberals apply it to their own people, whom they love, whereas the anti-Semites apply it to an alien people whom they hate. This great difference bespeaks the virtues of the liberals, but the dangerous similarity bespeaks the pitfalls of the Zionist identification of all Jews as one nation and of world Jewry with the state of Israel. Here we touch upon that common axis from which Zionism and anti-Semitism branch off in opposite directions as bisymmetric phenomena.”

    But lets assume that I have got it all wrong. Why did Sean Matgamna of Workers Liberty conclude the Draper had incited the alleged “zionophobia” of the left? At least Matgamna and I recognise where Draper actually stood on the issue of Zionism. For him a reason for political damnation for me a proof of the principled socialist politics which marked Hal Draper’s life.

  15. TomU said,

    “We Independent Socialists refrained from giving political support to any of the Palestinian political groups, precisely because their official policies were formulated in terms of ‘destroying’ Israel. (Thus, Zionist apologists denounced us as ‘pro-Arab’ [for being ‘too critical’ of the Israeli leadership … TU] while some Arab socialists like Maksoud denounced us as pro-Zionist: but this pattern was inevitable and did not bother us.)” Hal Draper, January 1990, ‘Preface’ of ‘Zionism, Israel and the Arabs.

  16. John Palmer said,

    TomU: Why did Sean Matgamna say that Draper was responsible in part for the “anti-Zionophobia of so much of the left”?

  17. John Palmer said,

    TomU: This is from “Israel’s Arab Minority – the beginning of a Tragedy” by Hal Draper (1956)
    “Zionism – the ideology of Jewish chauvinism – showed that it was and is one of the deeply reactionary conceptions of the political world. The child of anti-Semitism, it became the father of another form of ethnic oppression; if genocide means the murder of a people as such, then there should be a word for the robbery of a people as such.
    What Zionism created in Palestine in 1948 was the first act of a tragedy.”

    Enough said?

  18. TomU said,

    OK John – let’s make it clear: neither myself, the AWL nor Draper (obviously from our respective selection of quotes) is or was in the business of excuse-mongering for the last sixty years or more of Israeli and Zionist history. The AWL are not lawyers for right-wing Zionism (just read the extensive material on our website if you’re in doubt). In fact, most ‘active Zionists’ (by which I mean political operatives) would describe any recognition of the necessity for a settlement with the Palestinians as ‘anti-Zionist’ and potentially anti-Semitic in and of itself. There’s an educative example of this on YouTube where our former comrade Dave Hirsh is literally mobbed by angry right-wing Zionists for presenting something loosely approximating the AWL’s politics.

    So, what did Sean mean when he made his claim about Draper? I think – and Sean may disagree – his point was that Draper’s formulation of a bi-national state (based as it was on his analysis at a particular time) has the potential to feed the arguments of the “smash Israel” brigade as much as the “one state” argument. Much of what Draper wrote (including his introduction to the volume quoted above, written in 1990) seems to be premised on the idea of political convergence between left-wing and secular democratic forces in Israel and the wider Middle-East (including the leadership of the Palestinian struggle). What Draper did not and perhaps could not anticipate is the situation that unfolded in the 1990s up until the present date.

    Draper described his writing on this issue as not so much propaganda aimed at the Arab national movements or Palestinians of the time but specifically at “Jewish-Zionist and Arab-nationalist socialists”. Even here, I think Draper ‘over-anticipated’ or ‘over-expected’ when it came to the political unification of these forces. This sort of perspective endured up to 1990 when he wrote “We can now say, and with great satisfaction, that the general line now being followed by the PLO leadership under Arafat and the Palestinian movement of rebellion is essentially the line that we advocated…” Now, I don’t think this was particularly true at the time and one would struggle to make any similar claims about any of the Palestinian ‘leaderships’ of the moment.

    To conclude: it is possible to adopt a certain political method whilst being critical of the conclusions drawn previously. I greatly admire Draper but I am not blind.


  19. John Palmer said,

    Well we seem now to agree that Hal Draper was an anti-zionist. Regarding Draper’s support for a bi-national state uniting Arab speaking Palestinians and Hebrew speaking Israelis it is true that the current Palestinian leadership has been bludgeoned into abandoning that goal (though Hamas’s position is unclear on this). But to judge by what is appearing in Ha’aretz and other Israeli media faith in a “two state” solution seems to be waning in Israel itself. So all roads may eventually lead back to a one state solution, The question is – what kind of state?

  20. TomU said,

    My point was never that Draper was a Zionist but that the idiot-left in or influenced by the SWP would – to be even a little bit consistent – have to draw the conclusion that he was.

    As for the current situation: what exactly is unclear about Hamas’s position? The conclusion drawing in the mainstream Israeli press can only mean one thing, can it not? This ‘one thing’, by the way, is more likely to be protracted and bloody conflict resulting in the deaths or complete displacement of even more Palestinians and Israeli Jews rather than some sort of “one state”. I for one do not see the “waning” of a two-states settlement as anything other than a disaster for all concerned.


  21. Jim Denham said,

    John P wrote:

    “Jim – You must be a little desperate to quote Hal Draper in 1948 before the full character of the Israeli state had manifested itself,.” and goes on to quote from a later, much more hostile (to Israel) article from 1957.

    John: as Tom U has painstakingly explained above, no-one in the AWL is arguing that right-wing Zionism and anti-Arab racism is acceptable, or that Draper excused it at *any* time. What we’re claiming (and why the 1948 quote is important and entirely relevant to this debate) is that Draper *supported* the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, was *not* fundamentally hostile to Israel’s right to exist, and would probably be denounced as a “Zionist” by much of today’s “absolute anti-Zionist” “left”.

    Draper’s later advcocacy of a bi-national state is not inconsistent with his initial support for Israel’s right to exist (and defend itself against Arab attack): it was an attempt to come up with a way forward towards a socialist solution through Arab-Israeli workers’ unity. It was a million miles away from the way the “single state” slogan is used by people like the British SWP (and the Islamists they tail) today, for whom it is no more than code for “destroy Israel.”

  22. John Palmer said,

    Jim: Hal Draper’s advocacy of a bi-national state was explicitly linked to his opposition to an explicitly “Jewish state.” He advocated a socialist bi-national state embracing Jews, “Palestinians” and Druze as part of a Middle Eastern socialist regional federation. This is not dissimilar to what Moshe Machover argued for in his debate with Matgamna. Apart from anything else I heard Draper put this case in a series of debates which he and members of the Independent Socialist Clubs had with members of the (UK) International Socialists in California in the early 1960s. He was particularly harsh in his condemnation of so-called “left wing” zionists who, he pointed out, had already then rapidly moved to the right in terms of their attitude to the expropriated Palestinian people. Since, by the way, Julie Jacobson, was also mentioned in the context of “Third Camp Socialism” this was also the stance taken to the end of his life as can be seen from his articles in New Politics.

  23. Jim Denham said,

    John: how then do you explain the 1948 article? A complete volte face? Or merely an evolution?

  24. johng said,

    Generally speaking evolution is a process symmetrical to the unfolding of time Jim. Its really not possible to have a volte face in 1948 about the conclusions you eventually arrived at in the late 1960s. Quantum mechanics or the requirements of winning sectarian arguments notwithstanding.

  25. TomU said,

    No, not a volte face – but how then to explain Draper re-publishing his 1948 article in 1990 without any critical comment? Perhaps there’s a little more consistent thinking than you would give him credit for.

  26. Will said,

    The city of Weimar is seeking to twin itself with the Iranian city of Shiraz, the home town of Goethe’s idol the Sufi poet Hafiz – on the condition that the Iranian side recognises the Holocaust. The Iranian delegation has since been to Weimar but refused outright to visit Buchenwald. Weimar, however, is reluctant to sever ties with its new friends, as Matthias Küntzel reports:

    “At the beginning of the week Fritz von Klinggräff, the Weimar press officer, confirmed the change of course. They had abandoned the bit about Buchenwald being an essential component of the friendship from the outset, in favour of the metaphor of ‘the long road’. What was needed was an extended period of travelling in one another’s company in order to ‘see, as in an intellectual exchange, how compatibility can be created’.” (In other words: one lot is saying there was a Holocaust, the other lot says there was no Holocaust and the truth lies somewhere in between!).

  27. John Palmer said,

    Jim/TomU – You are surely not serious? Hal Draper was not a man to bury what he had written in the past or to deny responsibility. But – as you must acknowledge now – he should be judged by what he said about the Israeli state and its Zionist ideology over his lifetime. Thank goodness you no longer dispute the clarity of the record Draper left us regarding his opposition to both the Israeli state and its Zionist ideology. Enough said?

  28. TomU said,

    You’re right John, probably enough said. Enough not because either side of this discussion has exhausted the argument but because you seem to be consistent in one thing alone: missing the point.
    But on last effort: try this for yourself (no pressure to post your thoughts here): read what Draper wrote, look at the method more than his conclusions (which were aimed at a now non-existent Arab-nationalist socialist movement and a very marginalised Zionist-socialist movement) and see what conclusions you draw.
    Ask yourself this: would Draper now be screaming “destroy Israel” or something similar? Would anyone using his method come to anything other than a two-state solution (in the ‘real world’ rather than as applied to no longer existing movements)?

  29. Pinkie said,

    TomU said:

    “Ask yourself this: would Draper now be screaming “destroy Israel” or something similar?”

    Well, no he wouldn’t, but then nobody is, are they, eh?

    “Would anyone using his method come to anything other than a two-state solution (in the ‘real world’ rather than as applied to no longer existing movements)?”

    Who knows? But ‘his method’ has to apply to today’s events, so nothing’s as obvious as you pretend.

  30. Jim Denham said,

    “Well, no he wouldn’t, but then nobody is, are they, eh?”

    Been on any anti-war or pro -Palestinian demos in the last few years, Pinkie?

    • Pinkie said,

      I thought we were talking about politics that mattered, not waifs and strays,Jim.

  31. johng said,

    You support the two state solution Jim? What measures do you think solidarity movements should take to force Israel to accede to this demand?

    • Pinkie said,

      Leave it out, John, it’s not worth it!

  32. Jim Denham said,

    John: when you support the two state position instead of “smash Israel”, I’ll discuss it with you. Until then you should read up on the “socialism of fools.”

  33. Jim Denham said,

    Pinkie: “I thought we were talking about politics that mattered, not waifs and strays,Jim”:

    So pinkie, you regard the leadership of the Stop The War Coalition as “waifs and strays” do you?

  34. The trouble with Hitchens « Poumista said,

    […] The trouble with Hitchens Tom Unterrainer of the Alliance for Workers Liberty on Christopher Hitchens. Read with good comment thread at Shiraz Socialist. […]

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