Alex Callinicos Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Alex Callinicos

Donkey jacket to dust jacket

(June 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review 121, June 1989, pp. 32–33.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Prepared for the Worst: Selected Essays and Minority Reports
Christopher Hitchens
Chatto & Windus £15.95

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS has become something of a figure in the past decade, which he has spent largely as the Washington columnist of The Nation, the American equivalent of The New Statesman for which he worked before moving to the United States at the beginning of the 1980s.

My memories of him from Oxford twenty years ago are rather different. One of the chief ornaments there of the left – and of the International Socialists (the SWP’s forerunner) – Chris Hitchens cut a romantic almost Byronic figure in red scarf and black donkey jacket.

He was a brilliant orator. I can still remember the impact his denunciation of the loyalist regime in Northern Ireland had on me, a naive social democrat fresh from the colonies.

But even in those days there was something a little ambiguous about Hitchens’s politics. One always had the feeling that he would lead a demo and then dine at All Souls.

In the 1970s, as he made his way in the world of mainstream journalism, Hitchens drifted away from IS and into the Labour Party. The last argument I remember having with him was about an attack he made on Socialist Worker for anti-semitism. The nadir was reached when he defended the Falklands expedition as a war for democracy.

But then – as the articles collected in this book show-something happened. Perhaps the sight of Reagan’s Washington – summed up here as “a combination of unexampled slap happy greed at home and squalid surreptitious violence overseas” – rekindled some of the old fire.

In any case, Hitchens has emerged as one of the best writers on the English-speaking left, pursuing the new masters of the Reagan-Thatcher era with ferocity and wit, in prose that is a pleasure to read.

Part of the impact he has had in the US – not merely as a journalist but on TV talk shows and the lecture circuit – must come from the relentless abuse which he hurls upon an administration which was, on the whole, reverentially treated by the media.

Some of it is very funny. I’d read it before, but I still laughed when I encountered again the opening sentence of one piece: “To listen even briefly to Ronald Reagan is to realise that here is a man upon whose synapses the termites have dined long and well.”

Perhaps being in the US has also helped immunise Hitchens from the tendency politically and intellectually to capitulate to the New Right so typical of middle class socialists of his generation in this country. He reports with distaste: “I bought an armful of socialist magazines in London recently, and was impressed by their dogged iteration of the new rage for free market, individualistic formulae.”

Not that one should exaggerate the extent of Hitchens’s radicalism. His description of Orwell as “a convinced internationalist but an emotional patriot” could apply to himself, as is suggested by a passage where he celebrates the Second World War as an anti-fascist struggle.

Equally, his chief skills are those of criticism and polemic rather than those of theoretical argument or sustained analysis. Maybe this is connected with the image, carefully cultivated I think, of the Marxist dandy which must both perplex and fascinate Hitchens’s American public.

In an article, not reprinted here, on his fellow Nation columnist and left wing exile from these islands, Alexander Cockburn, he depicts the pair of them as Regency bucks dazzling and baffling their slow-witted right wing opponents:

“Later, we will feast on the discomfiture of the clods while flicking specks of dust from the irreproachable lace on our wrists.”

Still, one shouldn’t carp. The performance is brilliant. And informing it is a strong socialist commitment. In the concluding title essay, Hitchens describes his recent discovery of his Jewish ancestry and reaffirms the rejection of Zionism that is a main theme of his American journalism.

The essay ends:

“We still live in the prehistory of the human race, where no tribalism can be much better than another and where humanism and internationalism, so much derided and betrayed, need an unsentimental and decisive restatement. (To be continued)”

It seems, then, that some of the Chris of twenty years ago lives on.

Alex Callinicos Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 19.9.2013