In death, Christopher Hitchens has been hailed in the world’s conservative media as a great “public intellectual”. The term, which seems to derive, by analogy, from ‘public woman’ – a euphemism of polite Victorian society – is curiously appropriate for the one-time fair-weather leftist whose rightward evolution turned him into an enthusiastic apologist for the Iraq war.
“If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it”, his mother remarked, and she despatched him to a Christian private school from which he then entered Balliol College, Oxford. The young Hitchens moved with the zeitgeist, and the zeitgeist was fundamentally reforming-leftist or counter-cultural .
Hitchens joined the Labour Party in 1965, but was expelled a year later along with the majority of Labour’s students’ organization, because of opposition to Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s support for the Vietnam war and thereafter briefly joined the International Socialist group, a non-orthodox Trotskyist outfit. Trotskyism was fashionable in those years and Hitchens joined the least demanding and most libertarian of the small parties that claimed descent from the great revolutionary’s rallying call against Stalinism.
And there was a curious note, even then, of political cross-dressing, in Hitchen’s claim to have had gay affairs with two conservatives who went on to be figures in the Thatcher Government.
If Hinchens was an opponent of the Vietnam War, it must be said that that was a relatively easy stance in Britain, which had (unlike Australia) carefully stayed out of the American folly.
In the 1970s Hitchens moved on to work for the New Statesman – the house journal of the non-Tory establishment, and developed a reputation not just as an opponent of the Vietnam War but also of religion and the Catholic Church in particular (he called Mother Theresa a “thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf”).
Some people see themselves as being marked out by birth, fate or their own self-recognised personal brilliance to enter the great stream of history, to commune with the famous and powerful. Even in these early years, when the mainstream media – and more to the point, the publishing industry – hailed him as some sort of Marxist firebrand, Hitchens was on the slippery slope. He had already fallen into trap of being a professional ‘contrarian’.
Hitchens – like a thousand other lesser-known fair-weather leftists – had expected he would ride the wave of revolutionary change in the 1960s and early 1970s to power and personal wealth but the moment passed and the tide of history turned towards the ‘neo-liberal’ conservatism of Thatcher and Reagan. Having no skills but scribbling, Hitchens had little option but to make his living as a writer but he expected to live – very handsomely indeed – in the style of his upper middle class origins. He had to keep coming up with the contrarian goods. He had to be a ‘gadfly’ and a ‘maverick’. Boring intellectual and political consistency would never pay the bills, and Hitchens was deft with ideas.
Australia has its own versions of Hitchens: the late Paddy McGuinness, Imre Saluzinsky, Michael Duffy, Keith Windschuttle. Like Hitchens. Fair-weather comrades like Hitchens, they slid, during the Howard years, and with varying degrees of deftness, from an easy bohemian leftism to a comfy embrace of reaction.
By the early 2000s Hitchens was leveraging his militant atheist stance to give him credibility as an opponent of what he termed “islamofascism” – a historical nonsense of course, but one that aligned him, in a handy and very lucrative way, with the US Republican right, especially the neoconservative group around Paul Wolfowitz. By 2004, he was opining that neoconservative support for US intervention in Iraq convinced him that he was “on the same side as the neo-conservatives”. At this turning point in history, Hitchens’ atheism, professed opposition to Zionism and support the Palestinians simply became a useful way of recruiting wavering left and liberal opinion in favour of the Iraq invasion.
If there’s a lesson from Hitchens’ political evolution it’s this: if you want to write and still retain your left-wing intellectual integrity, don’t give up your day job and don’t expect to live too well.
• More Nick Possum at brushtail.com.au