Christopher Hitchens died 10 years ago this month. Many young leftists remember “Hitch,” if at all, as a militant atheist who alternated between debating pastors on the existence of God and defending the war in Iraq.
The first book with his name on the cover was a collection of essays by Marx and Engels on the Paris Commune. It came out in 1971, on the Commune’s hundredth anniversary, and Hitchens wrote the introduction. Exactly 30 years later, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, he admitted to himself and his readers that he’d finally given up hope on the socialist future he’d long advocated. In the decades between, he regularly surprised people who called in during his C-SPAN appearances to denounce him as a dangerous “liberal.” He’d explain that the label offended him—and not for the reason they might think.
Of course, a great many leftists who do remember this earlier Hitchens think the 10 ten years of his career invalidated the previous 30. Whether they blame his wrong turn on Islamophobia, cynical opportunism—or his critical faculties’ being eaten away by too much Johnny Walker Black Label—such critics often seem to think that if he’d been worth much in the first place, he wouldn’t have ended up where he did.
None of that makes sense to me. There are too many aging radicals who like whiskey almost as much as Hitchens did for that last explanation to hold much water. As for Islamophobia, Hitchens’s increased willingness to see the American Empire as a force for good didn’t start with any intervention that involved bombing Muslims. As any regular reader of his column in this magazine should know, it started with the wars in the former Yugoslavia, where the United States repeatedly intervened against Serbian Christians… on behalf of predominantly Muslim populations in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Cynical opportunism? In 2002, as he was advocating for the invasion of Iraq, he was also arguing with Andrew Sullivan on C-SPAN about whether Palestinian “terrorism” should be condemned. The Palestinians had a legitimate complaint, Hitch insisted, and couldn’t be lumped together with Al Qaeda. Whom exactly was he pandering to with that combination of positions?
I’d argue that, in the “End of History” atmosphere of the 1990s, Hitchens simply gave up hope on a socialist alternative to the status quo. He’d traveled the world as a radical journalist and befriended dissidents in countries like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. If global socialism wasn’t on the table, he at least held out hope for democratic revolutions to topple such regimes. His catastrophic error was his belief that the 82nd Airborne could spread such revolutions. All that was spread in practice was chaos and bloodshed and anti-American resentment.
However in the decades before that turn, Hitchens produced a body of work that richly deserves to be revived by the contemporary left. Take his book on Bill and Hillary Clinton. No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family might be the most eloquent indictment ever written of the neoliberal centrism that’s only recently begun to be seriously challenged for hegemony within the Democratic Party.
At a time when the culture-war politics of the moment made even many progressives well to the Clintons’ left reluctant to lash out at them, Hitchens was writing about the Dickensian horrors of “welfare reform” and the lengths to which Bill Clinton was willing to go to show that he was “tough on crime.” In 1992, Governor Clinton took time off the campaign trail to return to Arkansas to personally oversee the execution of a Black man so profoundly mentally disabled he reportedly asked to save the dessert from his last meal “for later.” Writing with cold fury in No One Left to Lie To, Hitchens says that even after Ricky Ray Rector was strapped to the gurney, he assumed that his executioners “were physicians trying to help him.” He helped them find a vein to insert the needle. “For many poor Americans of all colors,” Hitchens noted, “jail is the only place where doctors, lawyers, teachers, and chaplains are, however grudgingly, made available to them.”
Christopher Hitchens was one of the best polemicists in the world even when he was wrong. He was the kind of writer who could make you mutter, “Damn, that’s actually a good point,” even when he was on the other side of a debate. And his prose went down with the warming fire of very good whiskey when he was right—as he was in his trio of books about the Clintons’ war on the poor, Henry Kissinger’s crimes in Latin America and Southeast Asia and Cyprus, and (most surprisingly) Mother Teresa.
Christopher’s brother, Peter Hitchens, told me that Christopher’s hostility to religion was a consistent feature of his worldview from the age of 11 onward. That may be true. But in The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, Hitch was far less concerned with the pious old fraud’s metaphysical beliefs than her callousness to the patients under her care—and her cozy relations with death squad dictatorships like the Duvalier regime in Haiti. When he did turn his attention to more abstract philosophical questions in that final decade, I still can’t entirely concur with his harshest critics. Even if political stridency of his “New Atheism” can’t be entirely divorced from the politics of the post-9/11 era, I admit to retaining some sympathy for his humanistic critique of Judeo-Christian morality.
As wrong as he went on crucially important issues in his final years, we shouldn’t dismiss his life’s work on that basis. There’s still a great deal that could be of value to the contemporary left in the body of work he produced during his decades as a radical essayist and journalist. And if we comfort ourselves with the idea that he only went wrong because he was a fool or an opportunist who wasn’t really right to begin with, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to learn anything from his mistakes.