stopher Hitchens is a great intellectual entertainer. He is witty, stylish, clever, brave, one of the greatest political journalists of his generation and someone whose own journey from 68er Trotskyist to “human rights hawk,” as he now prefers to be called, illuminates many of the big political arguments of the past 40 years. So he is the ideal subject for Alexander Linklater’s cover story in this, our May ’68 “40 years on” issue. Linklater is a fan and a friend of Hitchens’s, but no hagiographer; after reading his portrait you might conclude that Hitchens represents many of the most destructive currents in that 68er radical tradition: the illiberal contempt for ordinary politics and incremental reform, the intellectual absolutism, the attraction to power (once to the international working-class movement, now to the US) and even to violence. Yet you have to admire the way that Hitchens has forged his own “torchlight procession of one,” often against his own friends—in his excoriation of Bill Clinton, for example, or in his support for the Iraq war. He may be a showman, but he is an intellectually useful one. He is also a curiously old-fashioned figure, a literary-political polemicist who seems to look back to the great debates of the 19th and 20th centuries; perhaps in some sense, as Linklater says, he represents the last gasp of an imperial English heritage. Hitchens has not yet completed the shift from left to right that many people predict for him, but temperamentally he remains a true believer (despite his proselytising atheism). So it is hard to see him settling down as a pragmatic, centrist liberal. The angry young man will surely turn into an arrogantly angry old one. What is not so clear from Linklater’s conversations with the man is whether he will leave behind anything more than an intellectual style. He clearly aspires to be the modern Orwell, but will he leave a coherent body of thought? And in the end, should we take him seriously?
A lot of Prospect/Foreign Policy readers seem to take Hitchens seriously. Three years ago, readers voted him fifth out of 100 in our global public intellectuals poll. This month we have produced a new list (and Hitchens himself provides accompanying commentary). The world has obviously not changed that much in three years, but to keep ourselves amused we have changed around one third of the names. As ever, there is nothing scientific or definitive about our list, but it provides a snapshot of intellectual trends as we see them. Please argue with our selection (see page), but please also vote for your top five. We promise no Zanu-PF tactics when the votes roll in, even if Noam Chomsky does seem to be cruising to a second victory. Sorry Noam, but it would be nice to have another winner this time.