Jim Higgins

How Not to Hammer Hitchens


Letter to What Next No.22, 2002.
Copied with thanks from the What Next? Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I HAVE little doubt that Christopher Hitchens is deserving of a swift kick up the bum for his peculiar and rather hysterical support for America’s war on Afghanistan. On the evidence of his article, Christopher In Khaki, in What Next? No.21, it is much more doubtful that Dave Renton is the man we should trust to do the kicking. David seems overly fond of the scatter gun approach to criticism, just that sin of which he accuses Hitchens.

For example, David writes:

“Describing the Islamic defeat of 1683, he [Hitchens] wrote: ‘In our culture, the episode is often forgotten or downplayed, except by Catholic propagandists like Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton.’ This last reference is puzzling. Why are these two alone praised? Is it Belloc's arguments against the (‘servile’) welfare state that appeal to Hitchens now or Belloc’s 1922 book calling (in the words of one, friendly, reviewer) for ‘the elimination of the Jews’? There is something truly nauseating about an ‘anti-Nazi’ argument that could justify itself only with reference to the work of real, self-acknowledged fascists.”

There are quite a few things wrong with this passage. Chesterton-Belloc are not singled out for praise in Hitchens’ text, merely acknowledged as the authors of a piece on the Muslim defeat at the gates of Vienna. All talk about the Servile State or the elimination of the Jews is quite inappropriate and is included only to add a nicely prejudicial colouration to David’s narrative.

Dave informs us that Hitchens has never failed to back our rulers “since Thatcher and Reagan came to power”. Now Thatcher came to power in 1979 and I have a clear recollection of Chris Hitchens attacking her Falklands adventure, with some spirit, but then maybe, according to Dave Renton’s fractured logic, what he really wanted was for her to re-establish the crusader kingdom of Outremer.

It seems from his text that David met Hitchens for a full minute in 1999 but several of the references in the article suggest a close knowledge of his life. He apparently misses the “old Christopher Hitchens, lost to excess, alcohol and the seductive embrace of the system”. I have often thought that I only just escaped the seductive embrace of the system by my puritanical eschewing of excess and alcohol, although I did know quite a few members of the SWP whose alcohol consumption was such that excess and seductive embraces were totally beyond their powers.

Finally, let’s just examine another of the prejudicial little squibs in Christopher in Khaki:

“The great chip on Peter Hitchens’ shoulder – or so they say – is his failure to live up to the charm of his extraordinary brother. The unkindest of former friends suggest that the great chip on Christopher’s shoulder was his inability to become a second Paul Foot ...”

Though I cannot say whether Peter is jealous of Christopher, I can say that I knew Peter 30 years and more ago and he was charmless and talentless then, and ensuing decades have changed this not one whit. Christopher was a quite different kettle of fish, a stylish and original writer and an accomplished speaker with a great gift for conversation and conviviality. I find it difficult to believe that, even in the darker recesses of his mind, he wanted to be Paul Foot, but then I am not even certain, in the dark recesses of his mind, that Paul Foot wants to be Paul Foot.

Dave Renton is convinced, however, that Foot’s 40 years of subservience to the leadership of the SWP guarantees him a place among the elect. Well good luck to them – it’s a cosy, closed world, full of certainty and eventual disappointment. Chris Hitchens spent, perhaps, seven years in the International Socialists and a couple of decades or so writing articles and books from a left perspective, so naturally he is not part of the movement, although he was until 1999 sufficiently alright to be accorded a 60-second audience with Dave Renton.

I do not know where Chris Hitchens will finally come to rest. If he continues on his present course, and it is a well worn path along which many have gone before, then we will be able to say with certainty that he has left the movement that he adorned for so long.

Jim Higgins

Last updated on 9.10.2008