Christopher Hitchens was never one to refrain from pissing on a fresh grave if the occupant seemed to have earned it. So now, monitoring Google from the afterlife he didn’t believe in, he can’t be surprised at the steady downpour. And surely it’s a watered-down tribute to treat his final decade of polemics as incidental—to insist that, no matter what you thought of them, Hitchens was, after all, a bon vivant and wonderful stylist the likes of which we will not see again. Of course we will. The ability to be witty on TV and meet deadlines while pickled may be rare, but there are always candidates out there practicing. Give it time.
No, the most fitting way to mark his passing is to pose about Hitchens the old question inspiring many a debate among radicals about the Russian revolution: At just what point did things go irrevocably bad?
Hitchens and I were not friends, really, but we shared certain mutations of the Trotskyist genome—with a particular affinity for the Trinidadian Marxist author C.L.R. James—and thus had in common a familiarity with the dialectics of this game. To identify the point of irreversible degeneration always implies some theory of the forces involved. The earlier that moment, the deeper the problem—and that much less worth defending. Explain your answer with suitable quotations from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and/or Rosa Luxemburg. (Extra credit for citing Capital.)
So with Hitchens, was there some possibility of reform left until he began writing bloodthirsty screeds lamenting insufficient casualties in Fallujah? (A fairly late assessment, comparable in the Soviet case to the Moscow Trials, perhaps.) Or did the degeneration become irreversible right after 9/11—a turning point at which he responded with almost libidinal enthusiasm, as if dosed with ideological Viagra?
Was his shift to the right already unmistakable in the 1990s, with l’affaire Blumenthal as the equivalent to Kronstadt? That would make the ferocious and protracted campaign against Bill Clinton as something like the Russian Civil War. To my mind, this is plausible. Despite agreeing with almost every political criticism Hitchens lodged against the administration, I could not help noticing the tone of upper-class loathing for Clinton as pushy plebian upstart. (Such an attitude suggesting that Hitchens was more of a Czarist officer than a Bolshevik.)
There are, of course, revisionists who insist that the degeneration began much earlier. The feminist case can be made on the basis of his remarks against abortion in the 1980s. And in Hitch-22—the autobiography published last year, immediately before the author was diagnosed with cancer—Hitchens confessed that in the late 1960s he was a leftist militant by day and guest at posh dinner parties by night.
As it happens, his double life was no secret from the comrades, according to the literary critic Terry Eagleton, who was one of them. They nicknamed him Hypocritchens.
The analogy flounders eventually. But the end result in either case, Soviet or Hitchensian, was militaristic belligerence and an ideology sealed off from contamination by empirical evidence. Unless someone finds proof to the contrary, Hitchens went to the grave certain that Saddam Hussein’s WMDs are out there, somewhere. Say what you will about the contrast in their prose styles, but late-phase Hitchens possessed an almost Breshnev-like suppleness of mind.
And yet … and yet … Arguably: Essays, his last and most effectively door-stopping volume exhibits its share of political sclerosis and chauvinistic provocation—including that strangely labored essay on why women aren’t funny, which seems that much more peculiar given the virtual female-lessness of Hitch-22 (apart from significant pages devoted to his mother and to Margaret Thatcher). But as with the other collections of essays in which his cultural journalism outweighs the political sort, the literary brio proves more invigorating than the propaganda is irritating.
In the introduction Hitchens writes that the most recent pieces were drafted with an awareness that each piece might well be his last. The size of the book seems deliberately monumental. Reading around in it now, it’s still possible to think of him as a man of letters with political concerns rather than a stenographer to power who possessed a nice style.
As for when it became inevitable that one would overtake the other—well, let anyone who wants to make that call. When we were on good terms, Hitchens would call me every so often to help him get hold of a historical document or locate a quotation. The last time he rang, it was in search of something written by Victor Serge, a fine novelist and poet who must have been the last Trotskyist to get out of Stalin’s Russia.
Now, some 14 years after I passed it along to him, the passage that Hitchens sought seems applicable to more than the fate of the revolution. Serge quotes someone saying that “the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning.” And to this, Serge replies, in effect: Okay, but let’s extend that analogy, because the revolutionary movement, like any other organism, carried within it “a mass of other germs,” some of them healthy, rather than fatal.
“To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse, and which he may have carried in him since his birth,” writes Serge, “is that very sensible?”