Christopher Hitchens is no Orwell

September 20, 2011 at 7:30 am (intellectuals, James Bloodworth, literature, Pro-War Left)

James Bloodworth of Obliged to Offend reviews Arguably, by Christopher

George Orwell once wrote that ‘every line of serious work
that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly and indirectly,
against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.’

Today, many right across the political spectrum like to pick and
choose from Orwell according to taste, stressing either the democratic,
socialist or anti-totalitarian aspect of his work at the expense of the
multitude – the resulting ‘legacy’ depending very much upon the political
persuasion of those doing the accounting.

Christopher Hitchens, the
one-time darling of the left, has in recent years uncomfortably skirted this
same political dividing-line. He has at once attracted the scorn of his former
comrades for his alleged shuffle to the right, while in the process gathering a
substantial number of followers whose admiration rests almost entirely upon the
premise of him having ‘come to his senses’.

On the surface, the nature
of Hitchens’s politics depends, in a similar fashion to Orwell’s, almost
entirely upon whom one is talking to.

His latest effort, Arguably, is a collection of essays spanning
the past decade on politics, literature and religion. The prose (which is
unsurprisingly of an extremely high standard, even if at times Hitchens employs
rather too much Look-at-me vocabulary) comes with an added element of tragedy
due by the fact that Hitchens was diagnosed with terminal cancer before he wrote
a substantial proportion of it. This may, in fact, be Hitchens’s very last book.

In common with Orwell,
Hitchens stature as a political writer was firmly cemented towards the end of
his life (I sincerely hope Hitchens goes on to live a lot longer), his
reputation as controversialist par
excellence truly coming with his repudiation of the left and his
articulate opposition to monotheism.

Importantly, were Hitchens alone in
rejecting the conventional left/liberal, post-9/11 politics, his bravado and
bluster would likely be much less potent. (Hitchens’s politics were never about
posture alone; but one should not underestimate the importance of showmanship to
the Hitchens brand). As it happened, there were others on the left who also
viewed the attempt on the back of 9/11 to conflate John Ashcroft with Osama Bin
Laden as crass moral equivalence; or as Orwell put it 70 years before: ‘the
argument that half a loaf is no different from no bread at all’.

The problem with the notion that Hitchens, after 9/11, simply did the obligatory
shuffle to the right, or as David Horowitz puts it (underwhelmingly, considering
his own political trajectory), had ‘second thoughts’, is that a substantial
proportion of the left really did climb
into bed with reaction during this period, and continue to do so whenever a
group points AK47s in the direction of the United States and its allies.

This was not confined to the debased remnants of Stalinism, either. The
editorial of the liberal-left New
Statesman of 17 September, 2001, written by then-editor Peter Wilby,
appeared to blame Americans themselves for the 9/11 attacks – for ‘preferring
George Bush to Al Gore and both to Ralph Nader’. A few weeks later, the Oxford
Academic Mary Beard wrote approvingly in the London Review of Books about the ‘feeling
that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming’.

Arguably, however, also
shows Hitchens at his dogmatic worst; and at times he resembles Isaac
Deutscher’s description of the ex-Communist who, having recanted on his previous
belief system, is ‘haunted by a vague sense that he has betrayed either his
former ideals or the ideals of bourgeois society,’ and who ‘tries to suppress
his sense of guilt and uncertainty, or to camouflage it by a show of
extraordinary certitude and frank aggressiveness’. In Hitchens’s essays on Iraq,
as Jonathan Freedland points out: ‘The absence of evidence (of WMD) is deemed
not to be evidence of absence but, on the contrary, evidence of the presence of
WMDs in the immediate past.’

While it may be simplistic to simply write
Hitchens off as a ‘Neo Con’, he has very little to say on traditional left-wing
domestic concerns, such as economic or social policy; and it seems increasingly
clear, if only by omission, that interventionism is not the only ‘consensus’
that Hitchens now uncritically accepts.

In a 2008 interview with Prospect,
Hitchens, a man who lives in extremely comfortable surroundings in Washington,
showed a thinly-veiled contempt for those whose lives are made bearable by the
British benefits system, dismissing the welfare state as ‘little more than
Christian charity’. In a recent article for Slate in the aftermath of the
UK riots, Hitchens also appeared to take the establishment line that the unrest
was ‘sheer criminality’ (as one Tweeter put it at the time – ‘yes, we know it is
sheer criminality; the question is why are our youngsters sheer criminals?’).
While much of the British left is right now busy mobilising against the greatest
cut in living standards in a generation, in the same article Hitchens glibly put
‘the cuts’ in brackets and ridiculed the term as an ‘all-purpose expression…
used for all-purpose purposes’.

Dismissing Hitchens as a Neo-Con or a
free-market zealot is indeed a rather pointless exercise; it is, however,
necessary to acknowledge that he no longer notices or much cares for the
struggles of the working class. If it is not part of the dramatic fight against
totalitarianism (which I have no wish to downplay), then it does not seem to
appear on Hitchens’s radar.

Orwell, in a reply (dated 15 November, 1943)
to an invitation from the Duchess of Atholl to speak for the British League for
European Freedom, stated that he didn’t agree with their objectives.
Acknowledging that what they said was ‘more truthful than the lying propaganda
found in most of the press’, he added that he could ‘not associate himself with
an essentially Conservative body’, that claimed to ‘defend democracy in Europe’
but had ‘nothing to say about British imperialism’. His closing paragraph
stated: ‘I belong to the left and must work inside it, much as I hate Russian
totalitarianism and its poisonous influence in this country.’

like many British journalists of his generation, has spent much of his career in
the shadow of Orwell. He has also spent perhaps a small proportion of it waiting
for his very own Orwell moment – a moment when he could take on his own side in
the way Orwell took on sections of the left over its appeasement of Stalinism.
Despite the bluster and fear-mongering (not-to-mention the genuinely repulsive
politics of the Jihadi movement), Islamism is not Nazism or Stalinism; and
Hitchens, however good his prose may be, is no Orwell. In defending the gains of
liberal democracy against its totalitarian enemies, Orwell never dumped his own

1 Comment

  1. Carrot Hou said,

    Charmingly delightful piece analyzing Christopher Hitchens, whom I only just became familiar. The nuances of this starkly intellectual yet bloviatingly self-aggrandising man rings true; he is no doubt witty and can string a nice sentence, but when it comes to the details and deep understanding of topics I’ve always felt Hitchens fell short. Whilst Hitchens subscribes to Orwell like a god, one can’t help but feel he tries too hard to reconstruct the achievements indicative in Orwell’s context, proven (I’ve always thought) with Hitchens’ sudden jump to the neo-con after 9/11, adorning terrorism to fascism and the need to fight it in the most militarist sense. It is an argument made weak on his behalf with his lack of understanding in Arab history, Islamic culture and the global prerogative in this century, unlike Orwell’s fluent understanding of fascism and totalitarianism. His inability to admit wrong does not exactly help, as he begins to purposely exclude or ignore information, which there are plenty, to desperately prove his already crumbling case justifying the war on terror. And whilst being totally swept and influenced by the New Age Atheism Movement and admiring Hitchens’ contribution, God Is Not Great is definitely the weakest out of the Four Dark Horses as he lacked a strong message as Dawkins did for scientific/intellectual truth and Harris for the landscape and derivation of Morality. That all being said, Hitchens is a great man and will be sorely missed by many, including myself.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: