Christopher Hitchens was prickly and combative: a neo-Trotskyist tendency of one, who had discovered democratic socialism and the importance of human rights - and even become a Labour Party supporter. Many on the hard left were quick to swarm with the torches and pitchforks against Christopher Hitchens, sadly and bravely dead with cancer this week with his atheist integrity intact.
His big mistake was, of course, to support Blair and Bush’s war against Iraq. The hard Left has tendencies, but one of its most enduring tendencies is the abuse of leftist litmus paper: to pick upon a single expedient issue to find someone lacking in socialist virtue.
In the case of Iraq, I can find more explanations than excuses for Hitch. He knew that Saddam Hussein ran a vicious, murderous totalitarian regime. In his intolerance for that genocidal thug he overlooked the Hippocratic approach to humanitarian intervention: first do no harm. I never had such a cold frisson in the presence of pure evil as when the late Iraqi ambassador to the UN excused Saddam’s reintroduction of amputation by saying they used doctors and anaesthetics. But far more limbs were lost after the invasion than even the Baathist butchers had dismembered.
But Hitch was right about Saddam, the Middle East, about Kosovo and the Balkans, about Libya, about, Chile, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton’s spineless camouflaged conservatism and his opposition to the death penalty regardless of who tied the noose.
How many of those who rally for Mumia on death row grovel before mass killers and practicers of mediaeval amputations? Many of the vilifiers of Hitchens have sung the praises of Saddam, Ghaddafy, Milosevic, or even Mugabe but are still huddled in the warm embrace of the so-called Left.
I can’t help thinking that Hitch was actually quite insecure. Like Orwell, from the lower Upper Middle Classes, his public-school and Oxford background had given him a sense of entitlement without the income, and so he had become an inveterate freelancer - who I suspect turned down a commission as rarely as a cocktail invite. But that insecurity and his rebarbative polemicism gave him some of the characteristics of his detractors: he was quicker to discern enemies than friends. When he had exposed the mendacity of the Clinton team for a Congressional Inquiry and turned up at the Nation’s boardroom to explain himself, he never noticed he had far more allies than enemies in the room.
When the Nation afterwards rapidly joined the Slobodan Milosevic fan club over Kosovo, we were told the magazine had “a line,” which he, as a columnist, could and did defy. His disgust at that and his perceived excommunication by the self-appointed commissars of the left drove him to seek approval from others. He was unaccustomedly impressed with being summonsed to lunch with Paul Wolfowitz in whom he saw a like intellect.
Once again, that is more explicable than excusable. Many people forget that the NeoCons originally began as a Trotskyist sect whose Drang nach rechts began on the issue of Soviet tyranny and was confirmed when the rest of the of Left abandoned Israel. His NeoCon sponsors dropped him like a red hot ice pick when they discovered that he was not prepared to drop his former positions on the Middle East in return for speaking fees and fellowships.
They were, course, also confused because of his vociferous opposition to “Islamo-Fascism.” But this had nothing to do with their simple-minded tribal anti-Islamism. He opposed religious thugs of all kinds and abhorred those on the so-called Left who tried to make excuses for fatwahs against Rushdie or to overlook Mother Theresa’s bigotry that the wimple hid from the simple.
Admittedly, his refusal to admit he had ever been wrong protected from abandoning his principles, but in the end, Christopher, (no pseudo-prole Chris for him!) was right (and Left) far more than he was wrong, because he derived his positions from opposition to all forms of tyranny and barbaric governments without making expedient tribal or geopolitical exceptions. The last time we spoke, he threatened to visit the cellar where the research material for my book on Rum is stored. I will always regret he didn’t make it. Better a well-oiled Hitch than a cranky commissar any day.