From ’68 agitator to staunch supporter of George W Bush’s Iraq war—what explains Hitchens’s political journey? I spent three days with him in Washington trying to find out
For most of his 40-year career, Christopher Hitchens’s notoriety has been confined to highbrow journalistic, literary and political circles. In the last 15 years, he has been familiar to readers of Vanity Fair and the Atlantic, and to viewers of the American current affairs shows that invite him on to say outrageous things in stylish phrases. His aptitude for the iconoclastic flourish—describing Princess Diana and Mother Teresa at their deaths, for example, as, respectively, “a simpering Bambi narcissist and a thieving fanatical Albanian dwarf”—sustained his currency as an intellectual shock troop of the left. Then, with his support for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and for George W Bush’s re-election in 2004, the left itself became a target of his polemics. But whichever side he took, he continued to file what were essentially minority reports to a specialist audience. Only God was able to promote him beyond such factional interests by providing the subject of a bestseller. While Hitchens has authored 16 books, including works on Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, the Elgin marbles, George Orwell, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, his assault on religion in God is not Great was the first occasion for which a publisher had arranged a serious US book tour.
Now his proselytising atheism has granted him something like the status of a household name. But why does this insolently charismatic, upper middle-class Englishman seem to attract, and repel, so many people? It may be something about the way in which he combines a raffish, old-fashioned intellectual showmanship with an eye for the big story. His current battle against faith is the biggest of his career—it is the earliest argument he remembers having as a child, and the one that will be with him to the end.
Christopher Hitchens’s apartment is curiously unchanged in the 13 years since I first visited him in Washington. A portrait of him and his wife, screenwriter Carol Blue, is still unframed. There is little art on the walls, few travel mementos; just bookshelves, a spacious living room, a modest kitchen and an annex for the alcohol. The aesthetic is not so much utilitarian as uncluttered of anything that would distract from the essentials of his life: reading, meeting people, drinking, laughing, arguing, writing.
It’s around 3am, there’s a half-empty bottle of whisky on the table and Hitchens is regressing. I’ve come to trace a pamphleteer’s journey through the ideological left—from the convulsions of 1968, through the inversions of 1989 and into the moral convolutions of Iraq. But as our first conversation unravels, Hitchens guides me back to one of his old strongholds—the 17th-century contest between king and parliament of the English civil war.
For Hitchens, the Cromwellian revolt represents not just the foundational struggle for parliamentary rule, but the great rejection of divine right. Relishing its triumphal Protestant music, he launches into a recital of “The Battle of Naseby,” Thomas Babington Macaulay’s 19th-century eulogy to the decisive encounter, in 1645, of the English revolution. (Hitchens’s memory is encyclopaedic. Ian McEwan has observed that it is as if everything he has ever read or heard is “instantly neurologically available.”)
In God Is Not Great, he declares himself a “Protestant” atheist. He claims that the liturgies of the King James Bible and Cranmer prayer book provided, at once, a poetics to embrace and a belief system to reject. He plucks a secular vocabulary from the literary canon and rips away its religious roots. But he is no optimistic Enlightenment rationalist. He identifies himself with Thomas Paine’s disillusion at the French terror, and Rosa Luxemburg’s famous warning to Lenin about the inexorability of one-man rule. He retains, however, from his Marxist youth an intellectual absolutism and a disdain for liberal dilemmas and trade-offs—hence a brutal assault on Isaiah Berlin’s genteel liberalism in a 1998 essay. And there is an undertow of violence in his arguments, an inability to empathise. He is, for example, incurious about what religious belief feels like, or what meaning it has for millions of people—even though, unlike his co-anti-religionist Richard Dawkins, Hitchens concedes that religious feeling is ineradicable.
As with other public polemicists, arguments for or against any issue become arguments for or against him. His starting point is always confrontation, his procedure to wrestle out contradiction, his endpoint a position of certainty. It’s that preternatural capacity for certainty, carried through the velocity and elegance of his writing, which has made him the most scintillating and disturbing British journalist of the ’68 generation. He is not exaggerating much when he says: “The world I live in is one where I have five quarrels a day, each with someone who really takes me on over something; and if I can’t get into an argument, I go looking for one, to make sure I trust my own arguments, to hone them.”
He has often said that the rudimentary impulse which first drew him to 1960s Trotskyism was less sympathy for the underdog than detestation of the overdog. And the more bread-and-butter concerns of socialism—redistribution, tax, welfare and so on—have never detained him for long. It’s in the universal arguments about liberty and progress that Hitchens has played his showman’s hand.
Two recent books by British journalists—What’s Left? by Nick Cohen and The Fallout by Andrew Anthony—have described their respective authors’ disillusionment with liberal baby-boomer responses to the Iraq war, Islamic extremism and multiculturalism. But they both follow a path trodden by Hitchens. His attacks on Bill Clinton in the 1990s, including his willingness to expose his friend, the Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, were early signs of a broader fallout with old comrades. And in the aftermath of 9/11 and then his advocacy of the Iraq invasion, many friends became enemies. Alexander Cockburn, a former colleague on the Nation, published a piece in his newsletter describing him as a “lying, self-serving, fat-assed, chain-smoking, drunken, opportunistic, cynical contrarian.” Several ex-friends declined to discuss the matter with me at all. Robin Blackburn, a big figure of the British far left for 40 years, refused more in sorrow than anger, seeing the recent positions Hitchens has taken as a kind of illness: “I hope he gets better soon.”
Views of Hitchens among liberal media or academic figures tend to take one of four lines: that politically he’s a busted flush (though still a fine literary critic); that he was seduced by the chance to partake in real power in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion; that he did a “Paul Johnson” mid-life flip from left to right; or that he’s simply a vain contrarian who likes a fight and has got a bigger audience picking one with old comrades than by going with a consensus. There are also more sympathetic interpretations that see neoconservative foreign policy ideas converging with a late flowering of his leftist internationalism.
But his are certainly the manoeuvres of a factional mind. In a 2003 attack on Hitchens in the London Review of Books entitled “‘No Bullshit’ Bullshit,” Stefan Collini came close to the mark when he said: “With Hitchens’s work, one gets the… sense of how much it matters to prove that one is and always has been right: right about which side to be on, right that there are sides and one has to be on one of them; right about which way the world… is going… and right when so many others, especially well-regarded or well-placed others, are demonstrably wrong.”
Hitchens is clearly not a busted flush in the sense that his work is now more widely read than it ever has been. Editors continue to commission him in abundance. He also has many alliances within Washington circles and Iraqi factions. But in terms of being consistently correct on the various positions he has taken over the years, his is a torchlight procession of one. He is unperturbed by this, considering his positions to have been consistent with old principles. It is others, he says, who have retreated into reaction and conservatism. “What I’m spending a lot of time on now is the rise of the reactionary left. I’m identifying and combating that,” he says.
It’s not that Hitchens thinks there was ever a single point of view that could have carried someone through all the twists of world affairs since 1968, or 1989, or 9/11. But he does believe that there was always a correct way of thinking about things. Over Bosnia, he once told me he could predict which way everyone on the left would split. For someone of my own—Thatcher—generation, the idea that people could take positions based on an obscure matrix of a priori arguments, sounded unfathomable. He stands by the remark. “I knew how it would break. I could have told you that Richard Gott would be with Milosevic, that Perry Anderson would stay out of it, that Misha Glenny would be pro-Bosnia.”
If there’s anything that still identifies Hitchens as a man of the radical left, it’s that he’s willing to take this kind of thinking to its logical conclusion; to declare there is a map of positions that everyone should have navigated correctly since the fall of the wall. “Wanna hear?” Certainly I want to hear. What he outlines is a checklist for being right—as a leftist—over all the big international issues since 1989: “First, everyone should have welcomed the fall of the Berlin wall and the overthrow of Ceausescu… As they should have been pro-Tiananmen crowd earlier that year. That’s the baseline.” Next, he continues, everyone on the left should have defended Salman Rushdie, “unequivocally, against the ayatollah.” The left should then have perceived that the “semi-utopian, Fukuyama, end-of-history stuff” was an illusion, and that the age of the totalitarian state hadn’t stopped. And when Milosevic invaded Bosnia, and Saddam invaded Kuwait, they should have been “not just for stopping that, but for overthrowing the people responsible… One has to be opposed to totalitarianism and its racist and theocratic version in particular. And the inescapable thing that lies behind all this is that it’s bound to make 1960s people reconsider their view of the US… anyone who hasn’t reconsidered it at all… I have no respect for.”
This taking of positions and deriving a “line” from a set of immutable principles belongs to a kind of Talmudic Trotskyism. “It teaches you forms of argument and method that you never lose, and that I wouldn’t be without.” Is that all that is left? The only regard in which Hitchens professes a modicum of empathy with religious believers is over the matter of losing one’s belief. “I say this as one whose own secular faith has been shaken and discarded,” he writes in God is not Great. “When I was a Marxist, I did not hold my opinions as a matter of faith but I did have the conviction that a sort of unified field theory might have been discovered. The concept of historical materialism was not an absolute and it did not have a supernatural element, but it did have its messianic element in the idea that an ultimate moment might arrive, and it most certainly had mutually excommunicating rival papacies.”
His own loss of faith came in slow degrees. “If someone had asked me my political alignment, well into the 1990s, I would have said that I was a socialist and a Marxist.” Then he found himself writing to students of his and this process developed into the 2001 book Letters to a Young Contrarian. As he surveyed the 30 years since the catalysing effect of 1968, he says he was forced to admit that there was no longer a socialist international movement, nor even a socialist critique that might help to revive one.
“So what are you doing calling yourself a socialist?” he asks. “All you’re doing is making sure that people don’t confuse you with a liberal—which I’d always considered a position of lily-livered weakness. But that makes it an affectation. So I felt it fall away. I didn’t repudiate it, I didn’t get poisoned by it, I didn’t hate it and I didn’t have a Damascene moment about it. But I did notice that those who do think they’ve got a critique of capitalism turn out to be reactionaries. They prefer feudalism or agrarianism; they’re pre-capitalists. Marxism at least has a theory of development and innovation. And global capitalism now seems to be the only thing that is revolutionary. That’s my Marxist way of looking at it.”
Many of Hitchens’s critics conclude that this is his way of saying he’s a neoconservative. His reply is that he doesn’t consider himself to be “any kind of conservative.” He would rather just be called a human rights hawk. “There should be a word for people who believe US power can and should be used to oppose totalitarianism,” he says. With no faith left in the French and Russian revolutions, or the proletariat, all that now remains is his idea of America as “the last revolution in town”—its spirit of liberty revived by the struggle to transform the middle east.
As a night with Hitchens threatens to break into morning, theories of how the neoconservative strain emerged from schisms within New York’s anti-Stalinist left, become increasingly labyrinthine. “Does this mean anything to you?” he asks at one point. “It must sound like the dribblings of someone reminiscing about being governor-general of the Punjab.”
As he usually does if he has no plane to catch or obligation to meet, Hitchens rises late—looking faintly predatory. He and his “girls” (as he refers to Carol, his second wife, and their daughter Antonia) have invited me to stay for three days, and he has cleared his diary for our conversations. The appearance he gives of living improvisationally must obscure a ferocious interior organisation. Articles get written at any time of day or night, with extraordinary speed and fluency—however much he has drunk. He turns out a couple of pieces in the intervals while I’m taking a breather from merely talking.
Amazingly, after 40 years of celebrating the military-tinted pleasures of his favoured Rothman’s brand, he has stopped smoking. He appears to have done so in the same spirit with which he sloughed off the socialist creed: not in an act of repudiation, so he claims, but simply out of a realisation that he wanted to live longer. Even his drinking, though still heavy, has been rationalised. If he is an alcoholic, he is a controlled, high-functioning one. He makes a display of comparing the prettiness of his youth with “the mammal you now see before you.” Yet, contrary to the imputation often fired his way—that a degeneration of his opinions has followed a path of bibulous decline—he doesn’t look bad for 59; healthy even. Still, there is something alarming in the nicotine-withdrawn appearance of Hitchens in the morning, and I beat a retreat until lunch, in a Greek restaurant in the Dupont Circle area of Washington.
The proprietor is a friend and familiar who plays up to Hitchens’s Rabelaisian presence, automatically presenting him with a full tumbler of Johnnie Walker as they banter about the finer distinctions between halloumi and kasseri—the Cypriot cheese or the Greek. He talks about Athens not only as the site of western origins, but as the city where his mother died and childhood ended. An old friend of his, David Rieff, has warned me against psychological enquiry. (“He won’t go there.”) But publishers in both Britain and America have recently been urging Hitchens to write a memoir, and he is using our interviews to exercise an autobiographical muscle.
For all that the personality is exorbitantly on display, he has scarcely written about himself before. The only near-intimate account he has laid down in print was a piece published in 1988 by the New York magazine Grand Street—called “On Not Knowing the Half of It.” In this he tells the story of how his brother discovered, many years after her death, that their mother had been Jewish. Much of the article is exercised by the question of whether his inheritance played a part in the shaping of his views. Largely, he concludes with satisfaction, it did not. He describes his annoyance at an editor telling him that it would make things easier because Jews are allowed to criticise Israel. The legacy of the ’68 generation he most deplores is that of identity politics or any argument that begins “speaking as a…”—gay man, Scot, single mother, Muslim and so on. Nevertheless, while he revolts against the Kiplingesque notion of “thinking with the blood,” he relishes the surprise of his ethnicity and at least a remote connection to a great tradition of critics and intellectual outsiders.
It seems it was an atmosphere of genteel antisemitism in Britain generally, and of conservative opinion in her husband’s family more particularly, that persuaded Yvonne Hitchens to keep her Jewishness secret. One of the more “narcissistic recollections” in the Grand Street article suggests how she transferred her ambitions on to her first son. Hitchens recalls overhearing an argument between his parents during which his father declared that they couldn’t afford private school fees. His mother disagreed, concluding with the retort: “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, Christopher is going to be in it.” By insisting that the necessary sacrifices be made, she was doing more, Hitchens suspects, than merely ensuring his social elevation. “Now I wish I could ask my mother,” he wrote, “was all this effort expended, not just to make me a gentleman, but to make me an Englishman?”
Born in 1949, Hitchens’s first memory is of crossing the grand harbour of Valletta with his mother while his father, a naval officer, was stationed in Malta. This, he reckons, was around the time his brother Peter was born in 1951. It’s notable that when he describes events that involved his mother, they are presented in stark stripes of emotional colour that are otherwise absent from descriptions of his upbringing. “I remember the very deep blue of the sea and sky, the white and green of Valletta, and the olives coming down to this magnificent natural harbour,” he says. “I’m always happy in the Mediterranean. I don’t know why I don’t live there.”
His mother was a Wren during the war, which is how she met his father, who found in her a woman whose social savoir faire compensated for his limitations. The only note of sentimentality Hitchens strikes is when he alludes to her beauty, and the memory of being picked up by her from school. His father would have been there too, he adds, “but I don’t remember a thing about him. It was all her, for me. And I could tell that she was very keen on me. She was keen on my younger brother Peter too, of course, but I always felt that I was the light of her life, which they say is all you need as an older son.”
By contrast, he tells the story of his relationship to his father with almost ruthless detachment. The son of a school teacher, Commander Hitchens had worked his way up through naval ranks, fought a hard war, and was then decommissioned in the 1950s. A change in policy saw new recruits being put on higher pensions than veterans, and he and some fellow officers formed an association to petition against this—with no success. Hitchens recalls his father as a good and dutiful man, but also “very right-wing, and full of class resentment.” His was the kind of resentment that looks both up and down. “He had a hatred of trade unions, of welfare bums and so on. But it was also a resentment of others who never had to do a day’s work in their life; what he called ‘affluent society.’ He hated the obvious unfairness of those who had borne the heat of battle getting the old pension. He felt he’d been scrapped.”
The biggest day of Commander Hitchens’s career occurred at the Battle of North Cape, where on December 26th 1943, his ship, the HMS Jamaica, sunk the Scharnhorst. The nearest his son comes to conceding to filial pride is in describing this as “a better day’s work than I have done in my life.” Every Boxing day the family would toast the event, and though his father was one of those who preferred not to talk about the war, he once confided in Christopher: “I don’t like people who can’t talk about anything else, but, unfortunately for me, it was the last time in my life that I was sure about what I was doing.” He became a heavy drinker.
Christopher’s domestic existence was peripatetic, moving between ports as his father’s career played out—until he settled down as bursar of an Oxford prep school. The young Hitchens was a precocious talker and reader, but the England he belonged to was the little one of imperial disillusion, which handed down a spirit of contempt to a 1960s generation of leftists. He offers an account of himself as a small, pretty, clever child, who hit puberty late and learned to argue his way out of his vulnerabilities. He has few memories of younger brother Peter—now a well-known conservative columnist—except as an inconvenience. Their paths diverge politically—although Peter was also briefly a Trotskyist—yet there is a striking physical and temperamental likeness. Antipathy has given way to a frosty friendship, and their occasional public debates are crowd-pullers (most recently in Michigan before 1,200 people).
From the age of 13, the public school his father scrimped to afford made things more interesting. He recalls the Leys school in Cambridge as full of the sons of Methodist Yorkshire businessmen who “thought it was their perfect right to be there.” His nascent socialism was triggered by boys who considered the working classes to be oiks. “It came at me,” he says, “not so much as from sympathy for the oiks but from a real dislike for the people who called them oiks.” He developed a taste for political polemic inspired by Arthur Koestler’s Hanged by the Neck and by Orwell. “I was magnetised by Orwell, because in his social novels he writes about the sort of family I came from, and he had the same experience of going to a school where everyone was richer than him.”
Obstreperous and disdainful of his peers, Hitchens had joined the 1960s. He signed up for Labour party membership at 15, marched against the Vietnam war, “had punch-ups with the cops.” And then he got down to the serious business of getting into Oxford to study PPE, which he saw as the groundwork for achieving his principal ambition—to write for the New Statesman. When he got the letter offering him a place, he remembers his mother and, more unusually, his father showing real emotion. They all went out to dinner. “It’s the last time I can remember being happy with my family,” Hitchens says. “And also the first time.”
It was in 1973, aged 24 and now working for the Statesman, that Hitchens got a call from his father asking him if he knew where his mother was. She had disappeared and her passport was gone. Hitchens was fully aware that she had been having an affair. His mother had introduced him to the man, a defrocked former vicar, who was a “bit of a charmer,” though also clearly a “flake and a third-rater.” But she was keeping up appearances, fulfilling her social role as his father’s wife, so her disappearance was a mystery. Then, a couple of days later, the Times and the BBC reported that she had been found dead in an Athens hotel room along with her lover.
His father couldn’t find it in himself to go to Athens, so Hitchens went alone to bury his mother. A note that she had left revealed that it had been a suicide pact. He also discovered that she had been trying to contact him in the days before her death.
In May 1973, Georgios Papadopoulos’s military junta, which had seized power six years earlier, was busy suppressing an attempted counter-coup. “One thing that defined the late 1960s for a lot of us, and that is forgotten now, was the unbelievable fact that in 1967 the army had taken over Greece in a fascist coup.” What had been, for the teenage Hitchens, a politically catalysing event—evidence of US complicity in the overthrow of a Nato member state which also happened to be the birthplace of democracy—was now the backdrop to a personal catastrophe.
The bodies hadn’t been discovered for two days, and even with the room cleaned, the stench was appalling—she had taken pills; he, shockingly, had gutted himself with a knife. “So I go to the window because I think I’m going to be sick… and suddenly I get my first view of the Parthenon, across from the hotel, in brilliant sunlight. And down below there are tanks, and armed men, and bloodstains in the streets.” When Hitchens talks about this moment, he associates it with his first memory of sailing into Valletta harbour with his mother. “I’ve had that feeling several times,” he says. “I’ve felt it in Cyprus and Lebanon, in Crete, and recently in Tunis. It’s how I felt about the Mediterranean. The flash of light, the coincidence of the white, the green and the double blue. It makes me feel that I’m still at home.”
The Anglican vicar of Athens conducted the funeral, making no attempt to disguise his distaste at burying a suicide. Then Hitchens set about filing a “second-rate piece” about Greece for the New Statesman, which predicted that the junta would fall. What he failed to anticipate was where the final pressure would come from—events leading to the division of Cyprus. After the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974, Hitchens reported on the denouement, and would later turn it into the subject of his first serious book, making him, as James Fenton once put it, a specialist in partition. Britain had failed in its duty to protect the island; the west had failed to make the necessary intervention. It was a lesson that Hitchens has carried through to his support for the Iraq war.
His mother’s death meant the “definitive” end of childhood. “I no longer really had a family,” he says. “My father didn’t want to talk about it. My brother was going his own way. And in a way that I disliked in myself I felt a slight sense of relief. There would be no more Christmases, or family reunions.” Yet he doesn’t accept that his mother’s death had a shaping influence on him. He considers this to be intense but discrete emotional territory, of no larger significance to the way he has developed his beliefs and attitudes.
If Hitchens resists indulging his own psychological history, he is similarly disinclined to explore it in others. His voluminous political (as opposed to literary-critical) outpourings almost never examine the conflicting inner motivations of his protagonists or antagonists. There are some exceptions to his rather Manichean assessment of personality. His book on Jefferson allows for the complexity of circumstances, and sees its way past Jefferson’s slave-owning. And most substantially, in his fine, lucid study, Orwell’s Victory, Hitchens briefly examines how it was that Orwell came to repudiate the “unthinking imperialism that had been his family’s meal ticket.” In this process he discerns not just a rejection on principle, but also one of interior struggle; one in which Orwell had to reason out of himself, “his distrust and dislike of the poor, his revulsion from the ‘coloured’ masses who teemed throughout the empire, his suspicion of Jews, his awkwardness with women.”
When I ask if he has undergone any similar repudiation in himself, he uncharacteristically pauses before answering. “The things that people reject they can have a secret share in,” he says finally. “So I know what that’s like.” But, aside from rejecting his family’s conservatism, he goes no further in examining what he calls “the catacombs” of the inner life.
Hitchens came of age at a moment when politics would consume all other interests. To say that he was a child of 1968 is perhaps something more than a cliché, in the sense that the twin spirits of that year—destruction and emancipation—provided him with a sphere to operate in that was a complete alternative to family. “I don’t know how to describe it,” he says. “As 1967 ended, Guevara’s body had just been exposed to the cameras by the CIA, Isaac Deutscher had died, the Vietnamese revolution was getting into swing, you felt the world was undergoing a convulsion. All through ’68 you woke up every morning to something new. The Tet offensive. Martin Luther King is shot. Then de Gaulle is nearly overthrown, then Robert Kennedy is shot, the tanks roll into Prague. Then there’s the Mexico Olympics—students shot down in the streets, Black Panthers on the podium—and Northern Ireland blows up. And through the political contacts I had been making I’m in touch somewhat with all these events… You felt, if you were a member of a rather eccentric Trotskyist-Luxemburgist organisation, that you not only had a hand in diagnosing it, but that you were somehow shaping it, that you were part of something.”
For Hitchens, 1968 had little to do with the cultural explosion of the time—music, drugs, alternative lifestyles—and he remains a rather macho figure, untouched by feminism, except in an abstract political form. He had been recruited to his “eccentric” organisation—the International Socialists, or IS—in Oxford shortly before arriving at the university. He was noticed heckling a Maoist at an anti-Vietnam war meeting, and was approached by Peter Sedgwick, who Hitchens describes as a “noble remnant of the libertarian left.” At the time, the Oxford IS had five members. By the end of 1968, there were around 300. The exhilarating sense of operating on a large scale from within a tiny organisation is one that has suited Hitchens for most of his career since.
More so than university, which he scraped through with a third-class degree, he describes the IS as his education. It was at the time, “strongly anti-communist, and with no share of the Trotskyist view that state communism was a deformed version of the real thing. We believed in the idea that an educated working class could free not just itself, but society. It was anti-racist, anti-religious, and full of Jewish members, none of whom were Zionists.”
There is no mistaking Hitchens’s nostalgia for the period. “I belong to a generation which several times has seen in European capital cities workers and soldiers and sailors and students holding aloft the red flag with a real chance of taking power by force that day, or that week,” he says, and actually thumps the table. “No one’s going to see that again.”
His inclination was, perhaps, more towards the spirit of destruction than the one of emancipation. He is quite clear about what he enjoyed most: “You could see it on the flabby face of your don at college, or the flabby face of the prime minister—they didn’t know what was going on, they’d lost the plot, they were afraid. And I thought, ‘Yes! That’s what I like: to see their fucking jowls wobbling with anxiety.”
But disillusion, in Hitchens’s telling, was written into the DNA of 1968. Aged 19, he was in Cuba when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, and while Castro was making up his mind how to react, it seemed that most Cubans were on the side of the Czechs. “Then Castro gave his long, tedious, mendacious speech, coming out in favour of the invasion. That was a moment you could say that communism was over. What I did not realise at the time was that what we were doing was celebrating the end, not the beginning: 1968 was the last spasm of socialist idealism. It was the dying flare, and the only thing it predicted was 1989. It was a dress rehearsal for the final end of state socialism, in which a lot of my ’68 friends turned up again, in ’89, in Hungary and in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia and elsewhere. That’s Hegel’s cunning of history. It was a kind of vindication, though not of the sort we expected.”
So what remains of his kind of Trotskyism once you extract the illusions? The internationalism? “Certainly, and the role of ideas in action. The fusion of ideas and aesthetics with intervention. Yes. Absolutely. Internationalism is still precious to me.”
In his last year at Oxford, Hitchens met James Fenton, then a promising poet, who he recruited to the IS. In turn, Fenton brought Hitchens into contact with literary London. “He introduced me to Roy Fuller and I thought, ‘God, I’m having a cocktail with Roy Fuller, who knew Auden and Spender.’” By 1973 Hitchens was writing political columns for the New Statesman alongside a cultural team that included Fenton, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Clive James. Later incorporating his friendship with Salman Rushdie, this period set him at the heart of what would become, and arguably remains, Britain’s dominant literary grouping. Though his was already the most politically developed voice among this emerging elite, Hitchens was in his own words, “a secondary planet in this system, and not unhappy to be. I did a lot of listening.”
Of all his friendships, the one with Amis was the most intense—almost homoerotic—and initially Hitchens was the junior partner. “He was meteoric, Mick Jagger-like,” Hitchens says. “And I was never jealous of it. I thought his success was deserved. I first met him when his first novel, The Rachel Papers, was coming out. He had to give his own book party, and wrote a funny account of it, including me screwing his sister that night. She wasn’t the Amis I actually wanted, but it was better than nothing.” Amis has said that he recognised an element of envy in Hitchens, though it wasn’t directed so much at his writing as his relationship with his father, Kingsley. “Oh yes,” Hitchens concurs. “These guys were like old drinking partners, on the razzle together.”
It was in Cyprus in 1977, while writing his book about the partition, that Hitchens met the woman who would become his first wife, Eleni Meleagrou, with whom he has two children. By the end of the 1970s, they started thinking about moving to America. He had abandoned the IS in 1976 (before it became the Socialist Workers party) and the rise of Thatcher was then precipitating the early signs of fractures within the left. “A lot of people on the left had come to the uncomfortable realisation that it was actually more radical to be a Thatcherite. I wasn’t one. But the Tom Nairn-Perry Anderson thesis was that the problem with Britain was its institutions—the ancien regime system—and that Labour was never going to modernise. But the Tories might. That was when I decided to leave the country. I knew the left wasn’t going to do it, but I had no appetite to join a right-wing attempt to do it.”
An offer from Victor Navasky of the Nation in New York—which had links with the Statesman—persuaded Hitchens to leave England. He and Meleagrou got married on top of the World Trade Centre, and soon after she became pregnant. (He describes his eldest son Alexander, 24, as “tough” and recently took him to Iraq.) They lived first in New York, and in 1982 moved to Washington—and Hitchens found he had arrived at the place he wanted to be.
Hitchens’s writing of the 1980s covered, among wide-ranging literary themes, the growing malaise in the Soviet-dominated world, the legacy of US intervention in Latin America, and—reinforced by a friendship with the late Edward Said—keen support for the Palestinian cause. Above all, it was dominated by invectives against the Reagan administration, most of which he stands by today. In hindsight he does, however, acknowledge that by ratcheting up the polarisation with the Soviet Union, Reaganism did help to advance the cause of the anti-Soviet left.
In 1982 he backed Britain against the Argentinian junta in the Falklands. On this he ran against almost everyone else on the British left, and had sharp disagreements with James Fenton. “I had been in Buenos Aires,” he says. “I’d seen what the Galtieri regime was like.” He cites this as an early example of the British left taking reactionary positions. “If it had been up to them the junta would have lasted ten more years and destroyed the society of the Falkland Islands.” He likens the response of liberal friends to the reaction he would get 20 years later when he announced his support for George W Bush. “People would goggle at you as if you were an idiot. There’s no intolerance like liberal intolerance, no closed mindedness like the closed-mindedness of liberals.”
By 1989, shortly after he met Carol Blue, Hitchens’s marriage broke down. This period also marked changes in his writing. Martin Amis has said of Hitchens that 1989—the end of Soviet communism, the fatwa against Rushdie—liberated his prose. Hitchens goes along with this, to a certain extent. “Everybody had to be on guard all the time in the cold war not to use condemnation of one side to support the other,” he explains. But by this stage Hitchens had come to play the dominant role in his relationship to Amis, whose book about the horrors of Stalinism, Koba the Dread, opens with an attempted rebuke to Hitchens and all those others of the ’68 left who had, Amis argues, been softer on communism than on fascism. This provoked a counterblast from Hitchens in the Guardian, headlined “Don’t. Be. Silly.” Amis found himself being pummelled by his old friend, and accused of political naivety. “He’s not a political animal, though he’s becoming one now.” Indeed, in Amis’s recent dispute with Terry Eagleton over his attitudes to Islam, one can detect the overarching influence of Hitchens.
While the 1980s were, for Hitchens, dominated by anti-Reagan polemics, the 1990s brought about a different, more personal fury against Bill Clinton. In his book No one Left to Lie to, Hitchens accused the president of several counts of rape on top of corruption in the Whitewater controversy. Yet for Hitchens, what Clinton ultimately embodied is corruption of character. (Indeed, in his more recent belief that character trumps political ideas, Hitchens reveals one genuinely conservative inclination.) But underneath his personal detestation of Clinton lies a fury at the failure of the ’68 generation to live up to its own promise. “My dislike for him stemmed from his discrediting of something precious to me: the alliance between the anti-war and civil rights movements of which he’d been a vestigial member in the 1960s, and which was my formative politics. The way he cashed that in, lied about whether he was a draft-dodger; the way he smarmily pretended to be more in favour of civil rights than he had been at the time, the way he cheapened everything. He was nothing but a cynical, self-seeking, ambitious thug, and the realisation that this would be the closest that my class of ’68 would get to the top job gave me a terrible sickening feeling.”
By the end of the 1990s, Hitchens was reconciling himself to his loss of faith in his own generation, and in socialism, and had started work on a book about Proust in an uncharacteristic retreat into inner contemplation. The biggest remaining crusade of a recognisably “left” kind was his attempt to bring Henry Kissinger to trial for alleged criminal culpability for the illegal bombing of Cambodia and the toppling of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile. The lawsuit was filed on the 28th anniversary of the Chilean coup, which happened to be the morning of 11th September 2001. “I was in California that morning,” Hitchens says. “Carol called to say, if you turn on the television you’ll find that the campaign to arrest Kissinger has gone into a brief eclipse.”
What Hitchens says he experienced after the 2001 attacks was exhilaration, a sudden return of a kind of energy that he last recalled from 1968—a sensation described as “encouraging signs of polarisation” by his friend Israel Shahak. “As soon as I saw the impact of those planes, I realised what was going to happen,” he says. “I knew it would be something apocalyptic from Islam. It was the flash that illuminates the whole scene, a way of thinking from the days of the old left. And I also knew what all the comrades would say, and what I would have to say about that.”
In five years of argument over the Iraq war, many key players have passed through his apartment. In between our conversations, Hitchens arranges drinks with Qubad Talabani, son of Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president; and Sean Penn, the Hollywood anti-war spokesman whose independent mind he admires. There’s a clash with other arrangements; Hitchens swats them away. “We’re all bit players in the drama entitled ‘Christopher Hitchens,’” Carol snorts. “Normally we’re happy with our bit parts, but sometimes we want to be in our own drama.”
Hitchens has been accused of racism, self-glorification, betraying friendships. He has a thick skin, he says, though he’s concerned that it may have become too thick. Yet he argues that fighting with old comrades is the least of what he has been doing. His main business, he claims, has been to ally himself with what was originally an underground movement of Sunnis, Shias and Kurds—all working towards the overthrow of a latter-day Stalinist monster. “I have felt like I used to in the 1960s,” he says, “working with revolutionaries. That reminds me of my better days.”
But he was also getting closer to real power than ever before. Kevin Kellems, special adviser to former deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, set up a meeting between the two men in 2002. He described it as “like contacting someone on the other side who you think might want to defect.” When they met, they discussed their mutual dislike of Kissinger and the US betrayal of the Iraqi Shia rebellion in 1991. They have remained friends.
When Qubad Talabani arrives at the apartment, the discussion is close and intimate. They discuss his father’s weight, before moving on to the problem of Turkish incursions into northern Iraq. A Washington lobbyist for the Kurdish regional government, the young Talabani is formidably smart. They discuss L Paul Bremer’s big mistake—not the disbanding of the army, Qubad argues, which was in fact his main achievement, but the failure to provide payoffs and pensions. Hitchens talks about the evidence, some of it apparently furnished by Qubad’s brother, that Saddam’s ties to al Qaeda preceded the invasion. Qubad discusses the need to create a federal Iraq. It’s not hard to see in the young Talabani the kind of secular and cosmopolitan vision of Iraq that Hitchens has tried to cling on to as the threat of Sunni-Shia civil war has darkened. Hitchens claims allies among several Iraqi factions, but his first real contact came in the early 1990s, when “trudging around northern Iraq” researching an article for National Geographic on Saddam’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds. And it was their struggle with which he originally identified.
Hitchens’s arguments for the 2003 war did not rely on the threat of weapons of mass destruction, though he still insists that Saddam represented the main hazard of the middle east. Rather, it’s a sense of the historical necessity to break totalitarian power. If there is a Hitchens volte-face, it is in his view of US power as an agent, instead of an obstacle, to revolutionising the status quo—and the far less critical manner in which he now regards US, indeed western, power.
Last year, before the “surge,” Kanan Makiya was asked if, knowing what we now know, he would still have supported the invasion. Makiya, who had escaped Saddam’s regime, documenting its atrocities in his book Republic of Fear, still cannot bring himself to regret the fall of Saddam. But his reply to the question of regretting the invasion was as follows: “Bodies matter. I come from a tradition in the far left, back a long time ago in my life, where… bodies did not count. You know: the historical process, the victory for the working class. I would not make that argument any more. It is utterly repugnant to me.”
Coming from Makiya, this gets closer than anything generated by the anti-war movement to undermining Hitchens’s position. Hitchens points out that the figures given for deaths due to sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s were as high, if not higher than the current death toll—though he is suspicious of such audits. But he concedes the power of Makiya’s dismay: “Kanan is an Iraqi, and the pain he feels must be very much greater than the pain I feel, but I don’t think the interrogators will ever get a full-hearted recantation out of him. Yet if my Iraqi and Kurdish comrades start to say, ‘You know what: we wish it had never happened,’ then I would admit that my position had become an isolated one.”
The online magazine Slate recently asked a number of “liberal hawks” if they still supported the invasion of Iraq five years on. Hitchens was the only one to remain unrepentant. He explains his ongoing belief in the project with a summation of historic betrayals of the Iraqis by the US—starting, ironically, in 1968, with the role played by the CIA in the coup that ultimately brought Saddam Hussein’s wing of the Baath party to power. Hitchens views the 2003 invasion as rectifying those betrayals.
Hitchens does not pretend that things have gone to plan. But he asks what a post-Saddam Iraq would have looked like without the occupation. “Iraq was the property of a fascist and sadist who was butchering his people, squandering the resources of the country, preparing to hand over to his unbelievably nasty sons, who would probably have had an inter-dauphin fratricide of their own. And instead we have a humorous Kurdish socialist as the president of Iraq, and I’m supposed to apologise. Well, fuck that.” Hitchens alludes to the assessment of the enemy by the reporter Bartle Bull published in Prospect last year: “The other side in this war are among the worst people in global politics: Baathists, the Nazis of the middle east; Sunni fundamentalists, the chief opponents of progress in Islam’s struggle with modernity; and the government of Iran.”
My final engagement with Hitchens is a long lunch in the company of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, to whom he cleaves as a pioneering Muslim apostate in the new front of the Enlightenment-rationalist battle against faith. On a brilliant afternoon in Washington, there is a sense of like minds delighting in one another’s company. And there is more than atheism to Hitchens’s bond with Hirsi Ali. Their opponents are not only Muslims but western liberals too.
Ian Buruma and Timothy Garton Ash, both important liberal writers, attack what they see as the overconfrontational position Hirsi Ali has taken towards Islam. Garton Ash has used the analogy of the fight against communism. In order to win against the old ideological monolith, he argues, it was no good relying on conservatives. Instead, you needed alliances with those who had some share in the system—leftists and ex-communists—to generate its antibodies. By this argument, Islamist ideology needs to be opposed by Muslims of faith rather than atheists. But for Hitchens, this means that Garton Ash would rather enter into a pact with “moderates” whose beliefs he cannot share, than with a woman whose secularism is much closer to his own.
For Hitchens, the tragedy of giving ground to Islamic belief is being played out in Palestine. “Their cause has been compromised and cheapened,” he says. “I’m still with them. But the Palestinians used to produce democrats and campaigning journalists, people in the Bahrain parliament calling for women’s rights. No more. They’ve lent themselves to Hamas and Syria and Hizbullah, and identified themselves with the most rotten dictatorships in the region.”
By coining the term “fascism with an Islamic face,” Hitchens completed a circle which rolls together the arguments against fascism, communism and religion. He has sought to resist any appeal from a liberal centre. “I’ve never been impressed by middle-ground or art-of-the-possible stuff,” he says. “Why would people bother with politics if that’s all they wanted to do? If you weren’t trying to see if you could expand the art of the possible, break the limits of the feasible, redefine it, expand it—why would you bother? Who wants to be just a manager?”
One answer to that may be: those people who actually want to improve conditions for the underdogs—an attitude dismissed by Hitchens as “Christian charity.” Hitchens becomes impatient when asked what has become of his views on economic or social policy. He says he no longer has preconceptions: “whatever works; wherever the evidence leads.” On the international stage, he has carved out post-ideological positions for himself that are still illuminated by the clarity of an ideological mind. Elsewhere he descends into a multitude of contradictions.
He says he now thinks that nation states are essential for democracy, but also remains in favour of a supranational Europe. He says he no longer believes redistribution works—a view that places him on the outer reaches of the free market right in Europe—yet also advocates the “Sweden formula”: that you should be able to tell nothing about the status and wealth of parents from their children. He believes the extreme income gap in America is intolerable, not out of an interest in equality but because “solidarity with others is mandated by self-interest.” He hates the “law and order” style in politics, yet approves of Rudy Giuliani’s record in New York. He has no opinion on migration because “I don’t know enough about it.” But Hitchens is a polemicist, not a political philosopher or a policy wonk.
It may be the diminishing returns of a bottle of whisky, but at one point he takes a swooping line back beyond left-sectarianism, way past the Protestant revolution, and deep into his argument about the regressive influence of Christianity—beginning with religious factions in Palestine 2,000 years ago.
“We live in the wreckage of what they did,” he says. “There should have been a thorough Roman cleansing of all that, and a Hellenisation of the Jews. We wouldn’t have had to put up with fundamentalist Christianity, and its plagiarism in the form of Islam. There would have been other barbaric shit. But we wouldn’t have lost the connection to Athens.”
The notion of history as an unravelling argument, to be lost or won, is, ironically, a declaration of faith. Under it, the chaos of human reality consumes idealists, moralists and revolutionaries alike. But Hitchens is temperamentally incapable of abandoning his flashing certainties and evolving into a liberal realist. The splits and divisions of his career in argument seem only to have increased his absolutism. Derived from the embers of an imperial past, his are the last flares of a very English species of political fury.