Last of the Old Socialists
LAST OF THE OLD SOCIALISTS
By Stephen J. Miller, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation
Many attempts have been made since the publication of Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22 to make sense of his contradictory political views, and this fixation on the search for his unifying motif is turning into an undue obsession. All of us have to deal with contradictions and address imperfections in our views, and none of us holds the same opinions at all times. Hitchens is quite candid about his efforts to work out the kinks in his views, without flagellating himself for being wrong in the past.
Last month I attended one of Christopher Hitchens’ last public appearances before he revealed that he has esophageal cancer. After buying a signed copy of his memoir, I noticed on the back cover a blurb by Gore Vidal, one of the intellectual leaders of the Left. The Vidal blurb, in which Hitchens is named as his heir and successor, is crossed out in red, indicating Hitchens’ rejection of the offer. This single cross-out is perhaps the best summary of the book yet.
David Brooks is correct to point out that Hitchens is not a “sixty-eighter” or a “soixante-huitard,” in any meaningful sense. The leaders in the Anglo-American Left who came of age or earned their cred in the Sixties (Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Alexander Cockburn, the Clintons) could not be more distant from the old Anglo-American Left which came of age in the late Victorian and Edwardian Eras and is personified by Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells. The members of this latter group were socialists when there was still a proletariat and before the free market solved most of the problems that they saw as intractable. In other words, they had arguments that intelligent people had to take seriously back then. They also expressed themselves with elegance, erudition and wit, and although their political views were indeed radical, they had the manners and morality of well-bred Victorian gentlemen. If Hitchens still considers himself a man of the Left, he belongs in this latter group—and he is the last of his kind.
Hitchens was born in 1949, but the voice that emerges from his writings and his many public appearances is that of a man born around 1870. While fluent in our contemporary idiom, his pristine use of language and syntactical craftsmanship are echoes of a different era. (And to those who still think Barack Obama’s preachy, monosyllabic speeches are eloquent, I recommend watching any YouTube clip of Hitchens at the podium to hear what eloquence sounds like.)
Hitchens’ memoir makes a strong case that the Left abandoned him when “the personal became political,” in the decade following the romanticized year of 1968. Since he has seen through the false assumptions and fraudulence of the modern American Left, evident in its behavior since the liberation of Iraq, Hitchens is far closer to David Horowitz, Douglas Murray, and Bill Kristol then he would dare to admit. Indeed, Hitchens is much closer to the American Right than he is to the Left on many crucial questions. Though he loathes the label “conservative” and insists on calling himself a radical, there is a marked spot in the conservative movement with his name on it that was reserved for him by other “neo-conservatives” who followed the same intellectual trajectory.
This is why Hitchens must overcome his illness and pick up right where he left off. For a man who has devoted his life to fighting totalitarianism in print and speech, the personal may not be political, but the political is personal. His memoir is not yet complete, and it will not be finished until Iraq and Afghanistan are stable democracies. We are now closer than ever before to this future that Hitchens has envisioned for the former totalitarian and clerical states of the Middle East. I for one want to read new columns and books by Hitchens as this transformation unfolds well into the 2030s, after many of the positions that he advocated will have reached fruition.
Stephen Miller currently serves as assistant to the chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.