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As political systems across the Western world are threatened by a resurgent nationalist populism, what can we learn about this movement from the late Christopher Hitchens?

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In his April 2016 Times Literary Supplement review of the late British writer Christopher Hitchens’ posthumous collection of essays, And Yet…, Geoffrey Wheatcroft posed a prescient question, one that has long troubled anyone who has ever admired the Hitch: ‘If he was so good, why was he so bad?; or at least, if he was so right, why was he so wrong?’

There have been many attempts to answer a variant of these questions in the years since Hitchens’ death in 2011, none of which have been particularly convincing. Wheatcroft’s effort is somewhat bizarre: he posits that Hitchens, who read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Balliol, lacked ‘the wider knowledge’ he would’ve obtained had he read History.

It’s true that Hitchens never did much of the grunt work required of historians: the endless hours locked in windowless rooms, mining thousands of primary-source documents and musty archives.

Hitchens also made some poor historical comparisons when bolstering his case for the 2003 war in Iraq (he regularly dismissed the comparison between Iraq and Vietnam that many on the Left were making – and continue to make – not because he was unfamiliar with the history but because it undermined his position). But what Wheatcroft doesn’t seem to grasp in his review is the sheer size of Hitchens’ ego.

Nonetheless, it’s a testament to the late writer’s influence that even now, when just how wrong he was becomes more apparent with each passing day, his work still commands an audience and critical reflection. The last decade of his life was devoted to supporting and defending the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: in so doing, he became the chief unofficial spokesman for the Labour government in the United Kingdom.

It’s difficult to imagine how, on these paramount preoccupations, he could have been more mistaken: Iraq is now essentially a failed state, with large parts of the country controlled by the so-called Islamic State. Meantime, in Britain, the Chilcot Inquiry recently released its findings that former Prime Minister Tony Blair misled the public and exaggerated the justifications for war; the Labour Party he once led is in disarray, with a split a very real possibility.

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I recall an interview with Hitchens on C-SPAN during a time when his spat with old comrades was at its most virulent (he was, after all, not above resorting to cheap personal attacks when he found himself defending the indefensible).

In this interview he claimed that they – referring to intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Alexander Cockburn, Edward Said and Gore Vidal – wished September 11 had never happened because they couldn’t reconcile it with what he characterised as their anti-American politics. Hitchens, on the other hand, said he welcomed the attacks: it had crystallised his thinking and made it clear who his real enemies were.

Within days of September 11, he’d labelled the attacks ‘fascism with an Islamic face’, and never really retreated from that position. He argued the case for the invasion of Iraq better than any politician. He claimed his position was consistent with his previous views: this was not a new war but rather an extension of the first Gulf War, in which US President George Bush should have continued the march on to Baghdad after liberating Kuwait.

Since he’d criticised Bush Senior back then, he argued it was now incumbent upon him to support his son. He also pointed out that he’d advocated for military intervention in Bosnia in an effort to prevent genocide and supported Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands War.

Armed with tales of the horror of life under Saddam Hussein’s regime, which were almost exclusively drawn from Kenan Makiya’s Republic of Fear, first published in 1989, Hitchens argued that his position was, above all else, an anti-totalitarian one. If this was no longer considered an important cornerstone of the Left, then he wanted no part of it. (He would regularly invoke George Orwell, who famously wrote ‘Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.’)

For Hitchens, this was important, since much of his career – particularly since the publication of Why Orwell Matters in 2002 – had been in an effort to position himself as Orwell’s natural successor. Although he would feign modesty when the comparison was put to him, he encouraged it in much of what he wrote and said so often that one suspects it would have appalled Orwell.

The thing Hitchens most admired about Orwell, as well as others like Arthur Koestler, Leon Trotsky, Victor Serge and Rosa Luxemburg, was his vehement anti-Stalinism. The history of the 20th-century Left is littered with true believers who were too easily and for too long seduced by the Soviet Union; and the young Hitchens was, therefore, most inspired by those who broke with the consensus on the Left and provided a different vision for a post-capitalist world that wasn’t the Soviet Union (or China, for that matter).

For Hitchens, this was important, since much of his career… had been in an effort to position himself as Orwell’s natural successor.

In Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001) he wrote of the unique courage that it must have taken these dissidents to break with the party line. As socialists, they were already marginalised by the mainstream; as writers and thinkers critical of what had become of the 1917 Revolution, they risked being ostracised from their comrades too. Their actions were often undertaken at great personal and professional risk. History, nonetheless, has shown them to be far more clear-sighted than most.

This is the paradigm through which Hitchens approached the 2003 Iraq War. Little more than a month after September 11, Noam Chomsky was interviewed on ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live, where he was invited to respond to an article Hitchens had written in The Nation attacking him. In his laconic manner, Chomsky refused to engage with the personal barbs, but said instead that there was no chance of Hitchens believing his own arguments. It sounded like an aside – a throwaway insult to undermine him as a Serious Thinker – but there was more than a shade of truth to it.

Hitchens, long before September 11, had mapped out a path for himself: he seemed always to have been looking for an opportunity to break with the Left, not necessarily on a point of principle but so that he could claim that he, like Orwell, saw more clearly and acted more independently than his erstwhile comrades.

He crafted his eventual break as a kind of moral crusade; the underlying message of almost everything he wrote from that time on centred on his beliefs that the Left were apologists for Islamic terrorism, while he was taking a stand against totalitarianism.

Channelling Orwell as was his wont, Hitchens put it rather more grandly in the Guardian in 2011: ‘Practically every word I have written, since 2001, has been explicitly or implicitly directed at refuting and defeating those hateful, nihilistic propositions, as well as those among us who try to explain them away.’

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Unlike the writers he so admired, Hitchens’ position didn’t come at great personal or professional risk. He had a celebrity status in the United States unmatched by any other essayist; he didn’t risk financial insecurity or, worse, being deprived an audience. He had, in fact, engineered a situation in which he could play the victim: he quit his long-time column at The Nation and fell out publicly with old friends.

But he made new friends, and they were, largely, establishment figures. He spoke at the White House, visited Iraq with Paul Wolfowitz, President George W. Bush’s Deputy Secretary of Defence, and became a regular talking head on Fox News.

He had, in fact, engineered a situation in which he could play the victim: he quit his long-time column at The Nation and fell out publicly with old friends.

By 2006, Hitchens’ parodic effort at self-styled Left Opposition became its most incoherent. In an episode of the BBC Radio 4 show Great Lives, Hitchens was invited on to speak about Trotsky.

He began the segment explaining how he’d first become an admirer of the Russian revolutionary as an activist during the Vietnam War. Then, partway through, he interrupts the historical discussion to contemporise things: there are a group of American ex-Trotskyists, he says, who:

went on to become – many of them – what we would call the neoconservative movement; people who evolved out of Left Opposition Marxism into a sort of American social democracy, anti-totalitarianism, very anti-Stalinist… There is an expression on the Left – especially on that part of the Left – for when you broke with the party, what it was that impelled you, and the word is: what was your Kronstadt?

Hitchens was always reluctant to self-identify as a neoconservative, but he was willing to concede that this was the group with whom he’d come to be most associated.

What’s telling, though, is that Hitchens felt compelled to fit his own rightward march within a broader historical framework. He was always adamant that his support for the Iraq War was consistent with his previous views, and that he wasn’t just another cliché Leftist who’d migrated Right in his dotage.

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Hitchens’ political transformation wasn’t guided by principle but by his own narrative. And, as it became clear that he’d picked the wrong Kronstadt (a reference to the failed attempt to instigate an anti-Bolshevik uprising in 1921), he tried harder than ever to tie himself to a group of historical figures that were still relevant.

This ambition took on a different tenor when, in 2010, he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer and was told that he may have less than a year to live. Wanting to stay relevant to the debates of the day is wholly different from wanting to remain relevant as a writer that people read after your death.

This was an idea he’d flirted with in the introduction to his first collection of essays, Prepared for the Worst, in 1988. He returned to it in 2011, rendering an idea he’d annexed from Nadine Gordimer on writing posthumously:

By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints – of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and perhaps especially intellectual opinion – did not operate. Impossible perhaps to live up to, this admonition and aspiration did possess some muscle, as well as some warning of how it can decay… In consequence, some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last. Sobering in one way and exhilarating in another, this practice can obviously never become perfected. But it has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending, and I hope very much that some of this may infect those of you who have been generous enough to read me this far.   

Hitchens’ diagnosis and grim prognosis may not have mellowed his writing, but it certainly seemed to make him less prone to some of the more outrageous pronouncements that littered his work in the early days of the so-called War on Terror.

It’s hard to envisage, for example, him writing this about cluster bombs in 2011:

If you’re actually certain that you’re hitting only a concentration of enemy troops…then it’s pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that, too. So they won’t be able to say, ‘Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.’ No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words.

Hitchens knew that the historical record would remember Iraq as a catastrophe; an orgy of death, destruction and suffering that he had supported. In the early days of the invasion, he revelled in the violence, but by the time he knew he was dying there was no possible way to argue that overthrowing Saddam Hussein had been worth it.

As he continued to write for posterity, he focused on penning a kind of atheist’s guide to dying, which was eventually published as a short book after his death, called Mortality (2012).

Hitchens knew that the historical record would remember Iraq as a catastrophe; an orgy of death, destruction and suffering that he had supported.

I read it at a time when not dying was a day-to-day proposition for my mother, and I found it strangely comforting. There’s nothing particularly profound in it – it’s little more than a collection of aphorisms about illness and the prospect, as Hitchens put it, ‘not that the party is over but that it is most assuredly going on – only henceforth in my absence.’ But, at that time, it felt like exactly the book I needed to be reading and, returning to it now, I still feel great affection for it.

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Hitchens’ celebrity meant that his audience grew exponentially around the time that his best work – his literary criticism, some of his travel journalism (that which doesn’t degenerate into simplistic sermons on the nature of Islam) and his early polemics – was already behind him. His post-September 11 political essays and, even many of his comic sketches, have certainly dated.

Which invites the question: what could one expect from Hitchens if he were still with us today? He would have been interesting to read on the rise of Donald Trump; he had a knack for skewering easy-targets, but I wonder if he had it in him to properly understand the insecurities of Trump’s supporters. His views on Hillary Clinton were well known – he despised her and even updated his book on her husband with a chapter attacking her when she became Secretary of State. On literature, as a lover of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (he had, apparently, begun taking some preliminary notes on the author’s work for a future book), he would have been worth reading on the Karl Ove Knausgård phenomenon.

But I do shudder at the idea of him commentating on the rise of the Islamic State. In many ways, Hitchens embodied post-September 11 America better than any other writer. He made Islamophobia morally and intellectually permissible (he called it a neologism and, in echoes that can be heard regularly among proto-fascist types today, argued that criticising Islam cannot be racist since Islam isn’t a race). He celebrated the idea of American exceptionalism and this became the basis and justification for committing crimes throughout the rest of the world.

The idea that the US was an ailing superpower seemed not to give him pause for thought. American supremacy, in much of what he wrote, was deemed implicit simply by way of being American. Yet it’s the realisation that this isn’t so that has many Americans feeling unsure about what the future holds today.

Hitchens never made any serious attempt to explore or explain these forces in a changing world. Instead, his focus was on peripheral issues, namely Islam, which he claimed were existential.

There’s a direct line between this kind of thinking and those who today use Islam as a scapegoat for all the social and cultural problems that plague America (and, indeed, the West more broadly). Hitchens played a lead role in providing this intellectual ballast.

It is still too early to predict what Hitchens’ legacy will be because the causes he championed have not yet finished wreaking their destruction across the globe.

Perhaps, then, Wheatcroft’s question ought to have been – and it is one that will likely determine whether Hitchens’ is read in years to come – does his best eclipse his worst? Or, perhaps, in time, will his better judgements expunge his worst?