A review of Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters by Ben Burgis, Zero Books, 160 pages (January 2021)
December 15th marked the 10th anniversary of Christopher Hitchens’s death, an occasion that produced a renewed flurry of think-pieces pontificating about his legacy. Many of these articles—positive, negative, or ambivalent—had as much to do with the personality of their subject as they did with his politics or principles. They were reflections on the life of a charismatic bon viveur as much as the career of a bracing polemicist. This was the case even before his death—a sort of Hunter S. Thompson mystique began to color the public perception of Hitchens, especially in the final decade of his life when he was even sketched by Ralph Steadman. He seemed to be a living anachronism: a dishevelled and bloodshot pugilistic Boomer from the days of smoke-filled TV studios and large print circulations, and a caricature of the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, hyper-erudite Fleet Street transplant.
When Ben Burgis announced that he would be publishing a book entitled Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters, I anticipated a more thoughtful exploration of Hitchens’s political history and relevance than what is currently on offer. A slender 134-page effort by self-described Leninologist Richard Seymour in 2013 remains the only book devoted to an examination of its subject’s career in the past decade. It isn’t an especially serious or fair-minded assessment—produced by a hater for the enjoyment of other haters, it argues Hitchens was a closet imperialist and reactionary all his life. Burgis doesn’t make the same mistake as some other leftist critics who assumed mercenary motives for Hitchens’s political evolution. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the intention declared by the title, it’s difficult to see why he believes that his subject still matters.
The basic narrative of Burgis’s book is indistinguishable from the most common left-wing critiques of Hitchens’s career: he was a brilliant essayist and orator who said a few compelling things as an orthodox Marxist but shredded his credibility as a supporter of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Burgis spills much more ink explaining where Hitchens went wrong than on what he got right, which means we discover considerably more about Burgis’s positions than those of his subject. Burgis is a philosophy professor, and fills pages with his thoughts about divine command theory, utilitarianism, objectivism, various interpretations of Marxism, and so on, while Hitchens recedes into the background.
Hitchens’s greatest gift was arguably his talent for live rhetorical combat, so it is intriguing that Burgis has elected to structure part of his book as an analysis of nine debates (eight, really, since he covers one of them in two separate sections) in which Hitchens participated between 1986 and 2009. But it’s not clear how or why Burgis selected these examples. He says they “show you where he [Hitchens] started, where he ended up, and some of the threads that started to unravel along the way,” but no particular theme or coherent picture emerges and a number of interesting threads pass unremarked. Instead, the debates offer glimpses of a career that Burgis often treats as representative, but which lack the necessary context available in Hitchens’s essays and books.
A 2001 debate about slavery reparations, we learn, is “worth watching … as a snapshot of his [Hitchens’s] changing politics.” Burgis believes that Hitchens’s support for reparations exposed the fact that he no longer believed “political change can emerge from the energies of people at the bottom of society.” But every stage of Hitchens’s career contradicts this claim, from his abiding reverence for the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989—he often marveled at the fact that mass civil resistance played such a powerful role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union—to his support for the populist movements in non-communist countries and his argument that the Arab Spring had sown the “germinal seeds” of democratic revolution in the Middle East (though he was pessimistic about their short-term prospects).
Burgis notes that Hitchens’s friend Adolph Reed argued that reparations would alienate Americans of other races and make it more difficult to forge a broad working-class coalition to fight for economic equality. All right, but Burgis doesn’t mention that Hitchens believed in the pursuit of a post-racial society. He despised all forms of identity politics, and was horrified by the shift toward identitarianism on the Left in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In his 2010 memoir, Hitch-22, he pointed out that his former comrades on the “old ‘hard’ Left” were naturally hostile to that kind of politics: “It would never have done for any of us to stand up and say that our sex or sexuality or pigmentation or disability were qualifications in themselves.” There are, he added, “many ways of dating the moment when the Left lost or—I would prefer to say—discarded its moral advantage, but this was the first time that I was to see the sellout conducted so cheaply.” His universalism was his most elemental political principle—and certainly one of the reasons he still matters in an era of rampant identity politics. But you wouldn’t know it by reading Burgis’s book.
The book is littered with other irksome omissions and misreadings. Here’s how Burgis summarizes a central argument of Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million: “Amis seems to take it as an axiom that all versions of communism are the same in every important way. Thus, if Hitchens started out as a Trotskyist and even in 2002 didn’t fully disavow that part of his political history, he might as well have been an unrepentant Stalinist.” [Italics in original.] And here’s what Amis actually wrote: “Christopher (like James Fenton, and all other Trotskyists known to me) was, of course, strenuously anti-Stalinist.”
Burgis complains that Hitchens considered it “dishonorable and condescending” to cooperate with people who didn’t share his views on religion in the pursuit of “shared political goals.” He appears to have missed Hitchens’s admiration for reformist Muslims such as Hossein Khomeini (the Ayatollah’s grandson), his belief that the United States should be “on the side of those Muslims who want to practice their religion but otherwise neither to impose it or to be stifled by it,” and his argument in favor of a “declaration by Congress that in no circumstance will Muslim forces who have fought on our side, from the Kurds to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, find themselves friendless, unarmed, or abandoned.” Needless to say, Hitchens also cooperated with countless Christian conservatives in pursuit of the shared political goal of regime change in Iraq.
Lest there be any doubt about his position on uncomfortable or peculiar alliances, here is Hitchens in Letters to a Young Contrarian putting a fine point on the matter:
Do not worry too much about who your friends are, or what company you may be keeping. Any cause worth fighting for will attract a plethora of people: I have spoken on platforms with Communists about South Africa and with “Cold Warriors” about Czechoslovakia; in the case of Bosnia I spoke with Muslims who disagreed with me about Salman Rushdie and Jews who suspected me because I have always supported statehood for the Palestinians.
Part of the problem is that Burgis’s decision to delimit his analysis to a handful of debates fails to provide a proper account of his subject’s views. For example, he notes that Hitchens failed to respond to William Lane Craig’s “First Cause Argument” in a 2009 debate and explains that there’s a “standard atheist response to that argument”: “If the reason something can’t come from nothing is that nothing can exist without being caused to exist, explaining the existence of the universe by postulating the existence of God just pushes back the question. What caused God to exist?” But Hitchens made this “infinite regress” argument repeatedly in other debates on the topic, as well as in God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Burgis announces that “A version of Hitchens who knew more about academic debates about the philosophy of religion also would have pushed back in a much clearer way against Craig’s extremely dubious opening claim that atheists have never been able to come up with a good argument that there is no God.” He then reminds his readers of the Epicurean argument often referred to as the “problem of evil” or the “problem of suffering”: “If, as theists often claim, God is definitionally both all-powerful and morally perfect, it’s hard to explain why innocents suffer.” In God Is Not Great, Hitchens quotes the “ancient inquiry of Epicurus”: “Is he willing to prevent evil but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” Additionally, Hitchens edited a 500-page compendium entitled The Portable Atheist featuring essays by Lucretius, Spinoza, Hume, Mill, George Eliot, and others, each with a personal introduction, which offer an indication of just how well-read he was on the topic.
But, repeatedly and incorrectly, Burgis insists that Hitchens was ignorant of facts and arguments when an extensive written record of his commentary demonstrably proves otherwise. It’s even more frustrating that Burgis consumes pages engaging directly with the positions of Hitchens’s opponents without mentioning his subject at all—Hitchens is barely present during the summary of the Craig debate, and he often appears as an afterthought at the end of a section.
Even when Burgis defends Hitchens, he often fails to demonstrate why he’s still relevant or what made his contributions unique. When Hitchens and John Judis debated Harry Binswanger and John Ridpath on the topic “capitalism versus socialism,” Burgis says Hitchens made “standard claims about history and class struggle that should be familiar to anyone who’s read a little Marx” and notes that he “sounds in almost every way like a very orthodox Marxist.” But if that was the case, why should readers be interested in anything he had to say during this period? There are plenty of other orthodox Marxists they can consult.
Considering the sheer volume of bitter invective emptied over Hitchens’s legacy by left-wing critics (genocidal maniac, jingoistic bigot, power worshipper, etc.), it’s refreshing to find Burgis eschewing and even attacking this kind of hysterical name-calling. Nonetheless, he agrees with the broader left-wing criticism of Hitchens in the last decade of his life—that the positions he adopted during this period represented some kind of hideous aberration. Unfortunately, by the time he gets around to asking “What the hell happened?” in his penultimate chapter, many readers will be wondering why they should care.
In 1999, Hitchens debated his brother Peter on the latter’s book The Abolition of Britain. Of all the debates Burgis examines, this one offers the most illuminating account of the direction Hitchens’s politics took after the Cold War. It also offers a suggestive record of what he might have said about the rise of nationalist authoritarianism in Europe and the United States today. A significant portion of the debate is focused on the European Union, which Hitchens regarded as a vital democratic and internationalist institution (as Peter put it years after his brother’s death, “Many of his admirers do not realize how keen he was on the project”).
Summarizing, Burgis explains that Hitchens believed the EU incentivized democratisation by barring dictatorships from becoming members. But he only spends a couple paragraphs on the topic and concludes that the debate demonstrates Hitchens’s slackening left-wing convictions: “While he makes a few hand-wavey references to struggles to expand democracy waged by someone-or-other, he says almost nothing about the organized working class.”
Burgis’s general attitude toward several of Hitchens’s post-Cold War positions is that they were either poor substitutes for his old radicalism or disastrous blunders justified with vacuous left-wing rhetoric. Hitchens, he believes, “had been gradually worn down by the political atmosphere of the 1990s.” Even his campaign against Henry Kissinger was apparently evidence that his political “imagination has narrowed”:
The American state as a whole can’t be put on trial for its crimes, but if he squints in just the right way he can just about see the possibility of that happening to Henry Kissinger—so it’s Kissinger as an individual on which he focuses his argument. Similarly, in the debate with his brother, the only hope he really saw for changing the UK for the better was for it to be pulled in better directions by its association with broader European institutions. He’s come a long way from the revolutionary excitement of 1971, when he wrote that revolutions involving the “two-thirds of humanity” living in destitution would sweep away both of the world’s dominant systems.
That remark about “revolutionary excitement” in 1971 refers to an introduction Hitchens provided to a collection of essays by Marx and Engels that year, in which he argued that the Cold War and global poverty made the prospect of world revolution a real possibility. As Burgis would have it, this version of Hitchens was an authentic radical, while the version who made the case that Kissinger should be tried for war crimes was compromised, exhausted, and on his way to renouncing his left-wing principles. This argument is wrong for two reasons.
First, Hitchens always loathed the amoral (or “realist”) approach to foreign policy of which he believed Kissinger to be a uniquely malignant and particularly callous (not to mention powerful) practitioner. This was a principled point of consistency that he held independent of his commitments to socialism which is why it outlasted them. Second, Hitchens believed the effort to hold Kissinger accountable was an affirmation of emerging international standards around state sovereignty and universal human rights—what he described as the “context that’s evolved post-Milošević … the decision by the international community to become seized of the idea of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and hold people responsible.”
The Trial of Henry Kissinger needs to be understood and evaluated in the context of Hitchens’s support for the NATO campaigns to prevent ethnic massacres and displacement in the Balkans. These positions were ultimately concerned with the construction of a robust and enforceable system of international laws and norms that would deter, halt, and punish gross violations of human rights—hardly a meager political ambition. Furthermore, the case he made for intervention in the Balkans was an extension of his commitment to the European project. As he observed in Letters to a Young Contrarian, the “defense of Bosnia-Herzegovina was a civilization question … if we had let Bosnia and its culture and civilization be obliterated we would stand exposed as hollow and worthless.”
After the Cold War, Hitchens lost interest in fomenting an international socialist revolution, a cause he correctly concluded was no longer a going concern. This was also when he became more conscious of the Left’s deficiencies, such as its “willingness to placate the insane, wicked scheme of ‘Greater Serbia.’” The American Left, in particular, he decided, had a “conditioned response to anything that might trigger ‘intervention.’” He criticized the “spurious analogies from Vietnam”—a false comparison Burgis dutifully indulges when he argues that the “Clinton administration’s bombing of Serbia in 1999 wasn’t far off from Henry Kissinger’s infamous instructions during the bombing of Cambodia—‘anything that flies on anything that moves.’”
Hitchens believed that one of the reasons the Western Left was incapable of mobilizing to resist an ongoing genocide in Europe was its obsessive preoccupation with the misdeeds of Western countries. In his short monograph, A Foreign Policy for the Left, American political theorist Michael Walzer calls this the Left’s “default position,” which often collapses into the maxim that “everything that goes wrong in the world is America’s fault.” This tendency doesn’t just lead left-wing intellectuals to demand inaction in the face of atrocities, it also prompts them to change the subject whenever those atrocities are noticed and the regimes that commit them are identified.
The result is a mess of moral confusion and false equivalence—a conscience-silencing hangover from the Cold War debates about the extravagant barbarism of the Soviet Union and its allies. If Burgis’s book is any indication, nothing has changed. In reference to what he says is a “telling question” posed by Norman Finkelstein, Burgis asks: “Given some of the stated justifications for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, why didn’t Hitch ‘urge an attack on the United States to capture and punish Henry Kissinger?’” What’s “telling” is that Burgis and Finkelstein evidently see no difference between the genocidal tyranny of the Taliban or the Ba’ath Party and the misbegotten policy pursued by a democratically elected Republican administration—by the time Bush invaded Afghanistan, Kissinger had been out of office for nearly a quarter-century.
In short, Burgis is still a purveyor of the kind of evasive whataboutism with which Hitchens had become increasingly impatient after the Cold War, and especially after 9/11. Burgis writes that it’s “hard to imagine [Hitchens] having anything kind to say about one of the most important figures in the global revival of the socialist Left—peacenik British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.” On this much we can agree—Hitchens would almost certainly have hated Corbyn. This is a man who led his party to its most crushing parliamentary defeat in almost a century—an outcome that has done nothing to advance the interests of those in whose name he claims to speak.
And Corbyn is exactly the kind of “peacenik” for whom Hitchens reserved contempt—a dogmatic opponent of Western military power no matter the cause, and a craven apologist for the West’s enemies no matter their depravity. Corbyn described Hamas—a terrorist group that sporadically fires barrages of rockets into population centers—as an organization “dedicated towards the good of the Palestinian people and bringing about long-term peace and social justice and political justice in the whole region.” Hitchens, on the other hand, argued in 2008 that the “most depressing and wretched spectacle of the past decade, for all those who care about democracy and secularism, has been the degeneration of Palestinian Arab nationalism into the theocratic and thanatocratic hell of Hamas.” Hitchens made no secret of his quarrel with the kind of leftism that Corbyn typifies and that Burgis seems to find so impressive:
For them, revolutionary authenticity belonged to groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah, resolute opponents of the global colossus and tireless fighters against Zionism. For me, this was yet another round in a long historic dispute. Briefly stated, this ongoing polemic takes place between the anti-imperialist left and the anti-totalitarian left. In one shape or another, I have been involved – on both sides of it – all my life. And, in the case of any conflict, I have increasingly resolved it on the anti-totalitarian side. (This may not seem much of a claim, but some things need to be found out by experience and not merely derived from principle.) The forces who regard pluralism as a virtue, "moderate" though that may make them sound, are far more profoundly revolutionary (and quite likely, over the longer-term, to make better anti-imperialists as well).
Near the end of his book, Burgis cites two passages from Hitchens which address his political shift, the first of which comes from Letters to a Young Contrarian. Having declared that he had not “abandoned all the tenets of the Left,” Hitchens explains that he had “learned a good deal from the libertarian critique of this worldview, and along with this has come a respect for those who upheld that critique when almost all the reigning assumptions were statist.” The second comes from Hitch-22, in which he explains that he abandoned socialism when he realized that it was no longer a viable international political movement: “On some days, this is like the phantom pain of a missing limb. On others, it’s more like the sensation of having taken off a needlessly heavy overcoat.”
Burgis describes these as the “only two passages anywhere in his many books where he reflects on his ideological shift.” But this shift is one of the essential themes of Hitch-22, and he discussed it often in essays and interviews during the last decade of his life (see here, here, here, here, and here, for instance). Burgis is on safer ground arguing that Hitchens moved away from his radical political origins during this period. “By 2003,” he writes, “the only revolution that seemed to him to be realistically available for export was the American Revolution.” However, the implications of this view are more radical and transformative than Burgis is willing to admit. Consider Hitchens’s attitude toward the revolutions of 1989, which he described as a “huge release of human energy and emancipation”:
While the revolution from below was not animated by any great “new” idea, as had been the case in 1789, 1848, or even 1917, the intellectuals and the masses were agreed that they wanted the unexciting objective of “normality”—a life not unlike that of Western Europe, where it was possible to express everyday criticism, register a vote, scrutinize a free press, and become a consumer as well as a producer. These unexciting demands were nonetheless revolutionary in their way, which gives you an idea of the utter failure and bankruptcy of the regimes that could not meet them.
It’s difficult to reconcile “huge release of human energy and emancipation” with “unexciting” and “normality.” But in the two decades following the Cold War, Hitchens became increasingly convinced that the fight for liberal democracy—not the fight for some unattainable socialist utopia—was the most revolutionary cause he could pursue. As he explains in Hitch-22: “I have actually seen more prisons broken open, more people and territory ‘liberated,’ and more taboos broken and censors flouted since I let go of the idea, or at any rate the plan, of a radiant future.” While Burgis thinks something called “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” is an “inspiring ideal worth striving for,” Hitchens decided to put his political energy behind spreading the “emancipating idea” of Jeffersonian democracy, pluralism, and individual rights.
In parts of the world that need these ideas most, they remain profoundly radical. At the turn of the 21st century, Hitchens argued that the “next phase or epoch is already discernible. It is the fight to extend the concept of universal human rights, and to match the ‘globalisation’ of production by the globalisation of a common standard for justice and ethics. That may sound mild to the point of herbivorous: I can assure you it will not be in the least a moderate undertaking. It will provide more than enough scope for the most ambitious radical.” Despite what Burgis and other left-wing critics may think, Hitchens remained a revolutionary to the end.