Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Christopher Hitchens and Richard Seymour: a Trial.

with 6 comments

Hypothrophied Christophobia?

We await this book with bated breath,

Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens by Richard Seymour Blistering and timely interrogation of the politics and motives of an infamous ex-leftist. Among the forgettable ranks of ex-Leftists, Christopher Hitchens stands out as someone determined to stand out. Rejecting the well-worn paths of hard-right evangelism and capitalist “realism,” he identified with nothing outside his own idiosyncrasies. A habitual mugwump who occasionally masqueraded as a “Marxist,” the role he adopted late in his career—as a free radical within the US establishment—had ample precedents from his earlier incarnation. It wasn’t the Damascene conversion he described. His long-standing admiration for America, his fascination with the Right as the truly “revolutionary” force, his closet Thatcherism, his theophobia and disdain for the actually existing Left had all been present in different ways throughout his political life. Post–9/11, they merely found a new articulation.

For all that, the Hitchensian idiolect  was a highly unique, marketable formula. He is a recognizable historical type—the apostate leftist—and as such presents a rewarding, entertaining and an enlightening case study.

This is a recent example of Seymour’s take on Hitchens (Guardian May 2012),

Yet in his final years, Hitchens resembled nothing so much as the wretched apostate assayed by William Hazlitt – haunted by “the phantoms of his altered principles”, driven “to loathe and execrate them”, offering “all his thoughts, hopes, wishes, from youth upwards… at the shrine of matured servility”, becoming, at last, “one vile antithesis, a living and ignominious satire on himself”. And it is a sorry thing, but I suspect it is that Hitchens who has been posthumously honoured by the Orwell prize. *

The Seymour ‘idiolect’ , ‘Forgetable ex-leftists”, “Damascene conversion”, “habitual ‘Muwamp’ with post-Marxist ‘articulations’, “Theophobia” (?) with all the laboured citations from Hazlitt that begin with “wretched  apostate”, merits perhaps a short, very short, study of its own.

Harry’s Place remarks on the need perhaps to look at Seymour’s own stand on another “contrarian”,  Alexander Cockburn.

We await a study of Cockburn and Counterpunch that deals with them as  publishers of authors from the neo-fascist Entre la Pume et l’enclume.

We will, however, restrict  ourselves to Hitchens and his politics.

Seymour has described Christopher Hitchens in  similar terms already on his memoir Hitch-22  (International Socialism),

Given Hitchens’s political inconsistencies, Hitch22 is better than it ought to be, a fact which is a consequence of his undeniable talent A petty bourgeois individualist, in his last years Hitchens identified with no tendency other than his own, and could be found defending his former radicalism even as he embraced imperialism and American nationalism. A Mugwump who occasionally masqueraded as a “Marxist”, he was, as Terry Eagleton put it, in some ways “a reactionary English patrician, in other ways a closet Thatcherite, and in yet other ways a right-leaning liberal”. These characteristics, always active elements in his political personality, were dominant in his later years.

The Tendance began a review of the same work with these words. Handy, and no doubt satisfying to their author, we do not use words like “petty bourgeois”, or “mugwump” (the latter because we’re not certain as to what it means). “Closet Thatcherite” is a little clearer but what by the way exactly is a ‘closet’ in this context? Is it something to with Hitchens’s  gay youth? “Masquerade”, delightful as it sounds, with all the associations of court balls and fancy-dress, is not a word we employ often, if ever. Here is looks, simply worn-out.

Instead we said.

Christopher Hitchens is one of the most talented polemicists of the last decades. The former International Socialist, left-wing journalist “as someone who had spent much of his life writing for The Nation and the New Statesman” he became an enthusiast for Humanitarian Interventions, and assembled “an informal international for the overthrow of fascism in Iraq”. After calling for war on Saddam Hussein, he “stopped calling himself a socialist in 2002”. To most people of the left, Hitchens has been thereafter associated with Neo-Conservatism. There are others who still appreciate him, and are saddened at his present cancer, even while opposing liberal internationalism by force.

On 9/11 the Tendance did not moan about Liberal Imperialism or the Liberal Apology for Murder but summarised a different reaction.

But many of us were deeply affected by this inferno of death. Even those who are no longer ‘anti’ but simply non–American were profoundly troubled. I lived in a daze of sadness for days. In my guts brewed the utmost bitterness at those from the ‘left’ who announced that the US “had it coming.” But did this mean approving a ‘blow back’? Nothing could be less sure. Realist and ethical thinking on the call to overthrow Saddam, from its justification in claims about his ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to the principle of parachuting in a new government in Iraq, indicated that the US-led Coalition’s plans looked shaky. But for Hitchens the time had come to join the bandwagon that would eventually roll into Iraq. He would take American citizenship and become “keener on the foreign policy response of the Administration than on its crude and hasty domestic measures.” (Page 250)

We were, then not uncritical of Hitchens.

But often in ways Seymour would ignore.

A passage on the SWP observes,

Even in the microcosm of the 1960s and 70s British far left some of the important divisions between those shaped by the authoritarian side of Leninism’s legacy and democracy were being played out. This was not just a matter of recognising the “cultism” and “mental and sexual exploitation of the young and credulous” by the Workers Revolutionary Party. (Page 88) For all of his tribute to Sedgwick Hitchens fails to mention that his mentor was opposed to the IS becoming the Socialist Workers Party (Here). Sedgwick argued that it was being built on the suppression of internal democracy. Hitchens took a few more decades to become publicly concerned about this incipient ‘totalitarianism’, or, more modestly that particular fly in the leftist ointment.

This is how Seymour has described Hitchen’s anti-religious views,

…the vulgar anti-Muslim rants and ugly blood-lust that he ventilated without care, and which sentiments formed a transparent motive for his turn to hypertrophic theophobia after the occupation of Iraq began to fail badly.  And what of the crude sociobiological reductionism that he pinned his mast to?  At this point, it is arguably more pernicious in its effects than even the encyclicals of the Catholic Church, or the opinions of Muslim scholars.

The Tendance has also analysed Hitchen’s on religion (New Religious Politics: How Secularists Got Lost) , though “blood lust” fails to have appear,

Christopher Hitchens uses great wit and a fine analytical razor to cut faith up. But he ends by calling religion ‘barbarism’ and suggests, in a windy generality, that it is a fount of totalitarianism (god Is Not Great. 2007).

On the political aspects of Islamism we have suggested,

The Arab Spring itself has opened up a new basis for world-wide democratic and social advance; one that directly confronts not just Western supported dictatorships, but also poses the problem of Islamist projects. A secular, that is ‘religion-neutral’ approach to opposing the ideology of various religious groups, including forms of Islamism, has already had an influence in the countries from which many European Muslims originated. This is now a key battle-ground. Morality, and the Sharia are at stake. Opposition to the desire of faith leaders to order public life, to restore a segmented organic while that globalising culture threatens. In Egypt and Tunisia the demands of Muslim ‘Constitutionalists’ who seek to seal public and private life around their ideology, by law, and (if need be) by intimidation, have been opposed. If genuine secularist internationalism is to emerge it has to liaise with political forces in the countries swept up in the Arab revolts. The potential for internationalist co-operation on these, and wider social issues, has never been greater. Unlike the majority of the British left, the French secularist left has nurtured contact with these forces, notably in North Africa.

On the Euston Manifesto and Hitchen’s political shift we expressed this judgement. Not one of anathema at apostasy but an observation as its descent into gut-reactions and futility,

Hitchens has played a part in a wider political trend. That is the shift of a part of the left away from Marxism and democratic socialism to a belated ‘anti-totalitarianism’. This reached a brief high-point in the UK with the Euston Manifesto (though it had long-standing European counterparts in journals such as the French ‘anti-totalitarian’ intellectuals and the reviews le Débat and Esprit). This makes universal moral claims against absolutist political regimes. Despite its supporters’ claims to defend reason it has let emotion overwhelm them. Without a Soviet enemy to fight, it focuses on a variety of targets, from Islamism, the remnants of Stalinism, and parts of the socialist left. These are attacked in lurid terms, as if one can raise the genuine menace of Islamism in various Moslem majority countries to a global threat, and tie to it a vast range of left-wing views, from relativism, post-modernism, and the political activities of small Trotskyist parties and leftish campaigns against War. Hitchens and his allies have attempted to define the political landscape in terms of a division of the world, between liberal ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarism’.

Our review of  Hitch 22 concluded,

(the) Coalition between anti-totalitarianism, armed-internationalism, and anti-illiberal views was never very secure. The failures of Middle Eastern policy, the desolation reigning in Iraq, the mire that is Afghanistan, weigh heavily. The ‘anti-totalitarian’ international began to disintegrate in Continental Europe some time back. In France, the division of the troops over the relationship between republicanism and liberalism erupted over a decade ago. Today it’s a realisation that the domestic right is the main illiberal threat dominates politics in many countries. Italy and France present some of the best-known examples of how attacks on liberty – social and political freedoms – from that quarter are more pressing than the prospect that a totalitarian left or Islamist Caliphate will come to power. In the circles closer to Hitchens awareness that social democracy – which they claim to support – has an enemy in the market state, has pushed some back to the left. Their reaction to the Liberal-Conservative Coalition impels many to also look again at the kind of passionate egalitarianism that Tony Judt argued for. How is Hitchens reacting? Hitch 22 shows few signs of seeing this. He is in danger of becoming an embarrassing reminder of long-past enthusiasm for the invasion of Iraq. In his adopted homeland they say that being called history is not a compliment.

We stand by this.

Will Seymour be able to say the same about his writings in the coming years?

Will he become truly the Palme Dutt of the SWP ?

* Update: It is likely that it is Samuel Coleridge that the Hazlitt quote refers to. This is a clumsy comparison. Coleridge’s enthusiasm for Unitarianism, the beginning of the French Revolution and the Pantisocracy, were within a religious framework. “Coleridge’s writing during this period about what had gone wrong with society had a considerable influence on Christian Socialists such as Frederick Maurice and Charles Kingsley. However, Coleridge’s articles in support of Lord Liverpool and his Tory government in The Courier caused William Hazlitt to denounce him as a “turncoat”.

Seymour is no doubt aware that this stream of Christian ‘socialist’ thought was formed as a reaction to the Chartist ‘Physical force’ current. They supported spiritual and moral equality within a well-ordered, hierarchical, state and society.

The “apostate” Coleridge would  have had, from a modern left-wing standpoint, a dubious position to start from.

Mind you Hazlitt remained true...to Napoleon.


6 Responses

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  1. One thing about Hitchens, and the historian fellow puzzels me, and a number of others of the god that failed type, who have upped sticks and gone to the USA, how the hell did they gain entry let alone citizenship? I have friends who are married to US citizens but cannot get on a plane to the US let alone gain access due to their political activities at home.

    Even when you leave politics to one side, when you put in for US citizenship or even apply for a visa your asked whether you have ever been a drug addict or alcoholic. As far as ‘Hitch’ is concerned need I go deeper here, as US dept of immigration had a peg to hang their refusal on..

    Yes history proves such people do gain entry and gain citizenship, however there is a price to pay.

    Organized Rage

    August 2, 2012 at 1:00 pm

  2. Excellent – and as an active supporter at the time your analysis of the Euston Manifesto is spot on.

    In a similar vein have you read David Runciman’s review of Hitch-22 in the LRB: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n12/david-runciman/its-been-a-lot-of-fun – while literally quite hateful in tone he does hit one nail squarely on the head in invoking Carl Schmitt’s concept of political romanticism which I think perfectly defines not just Hitchens and his admirers but his most vociferous enemies as well.

    As for his getting into the US there are very different rules for the rich and famous as there are for the rest of us – just look at how many druggie celebrities swan through US customs every day while ordinary people who have ever committed a drug offence anywhere get strip searched and interrogated for hours.

  3. Not sure if Hitchens would have been regarded as a celeb before he went to the USA, not even in his own household let alone the SWP. Hobsbawm was one of those who always kept a foot in both camps, did he not end up accepting one of betsys gongs.

    What both of them had in spades was that especially English middle class contempt for working class people in the flesh. Roger is spot on about druggy celebs swanning through US immigration every day. There was a time when the had to announce they were going into rehab before they were allowed in. Back then, whenever a Stones tour of the USA was due, you could guarantee six months before it started a ‘story’ would appear in the media about Keith Richards successful struggle to kick illicit drugs.

  4. Mick, one thing that got me about Hitch 22 was when he was invited to speak to in a “dingy and poorly lit union hall Union Hall” in Haringey.

    The audience were labour movement stalwarts, not well dressed, “people who shun the gaudy display of supermarkets and spend their hard-earned wages at the Co-Op” and make endless “preliminaries” to his speech: appeals for strike funds, for resolutions to the Labour Party”.

    I fucking loathed him for that.

    For very very obvious reasons (and not just that I come from that part of the North London).

    Thanks Roger for that reference.

    I am fairly well acquainted with Schmitt’s Concept of the Political, but not with this book.

    It looks worth reading, at least an improvement on Weber’s efforts to put leftists in the category of the “ethic of ultimate ends”.

    One thing, Spanish Prisoner has a good way of describing both Cockburn and Hitchens as the left thought of them at one point:

    “Although I soured on Cockburn in recent years, I must say he strongly influenced my political thinking when I was young. I first discovered him in the pages of Harper’s and then in The Nation. He wrote in a bold, brash, uninhibited manner that stood out against the wishy-washy liberalism of most of The Nations‘s writers. Even then he sometimes sounded like a bit of a crank, but more often his observations were spot on. He could also be quite funny at times, an all too rare quality among left-wing journalists. The columns by him and by Christopher Hitchens were often the only things worth reading. The two of them shaped my ideas about the world, though ironically they both led me in directions that I think they would have disapproved of.”

    Then follows the criticisms.

    He also suggests that Cockburn’s support for the ‘Global warming is a myth’ school may have been something to do with his collection of Vintage cars.


    Andrew Coates

    August 2, 2012 at 3:53 pm

  5. A mugwump is “a Republican who refused to support the party nominee, James G. Blaine, in the presidential campaign of 1884”.

    So now you know, and almost certainly true of C. Hitchens.


    August 3, 2012 at 12:30 am

  6. The next time I meet a Republican who refused to back James G.Blaine in 1884 I will be sure to use the term.

    Andrew Coates

    August 3, 2012 at 10:31 am

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