Interview with Christopher HitchensHistorians/History
Glazov: I’d like to begin with your intellectual journey. You were, at one time, a man of the Left and, if I am correct, a Trotskyist. What led you to this political disposition? It is often said that a lot of our personal psychology and character lead us to our political outlooks. When you look back, does this apply to you in any way? Tell us a bit about your attraction to the Left, Trotskyism, Isaac Deutscher, etc.
Hitchens: The time and place when I came to political awareness, which was in the early mid-1960s in England, the governing Establishment was that of the Labour Party in its most corrupt and opportunist form (and in Washington, which we all understood as the real capital) it was that of the Democratic machine of LBJ. The charm and appeal of the “social democratic” project was thus very slight. And, coming from a generation which had read Darkness and Noon and 1984 before being exposed to any Marxist influence, the option of illusions in orthodox Communism did not seriously exist. I think it is this formative background that meant that, in Western Europe at least, the radical and insurgent spirit was attracted to one form or another of “Trotskyism”.
In 1968 - I of course like to think of myself as having been a “Sixty Eighter” or even soixante-huitard rather than merely a “Sixties person” - there seemed the chance not only of contesting the atrocious imperial war in Vietnam but of ending the dictatorial regimes of De Gaulle, Franco, Salazar and Papadopoulos, and of extending this movement across the Berlin Wall. And we have some successes to boast of: the battering that the old order received in that year was to prove terminal in the short run, both East and West.
One is in danger of sounding like an old-fart veteran if one goes on too long about this, but to have been involved in street-arguments in Havana while Chicago was erupting and Prague being subjugated was to feel oneself part of a revolutionary moment. What I didn’t understand then was that this was the very end of something - the revolutionary Marxist tradition - rather than a new beginning of it. But it had its aspect of honor and of glory. Its greatest culmination turned out to be in 1989, when the delayed or postponed effects of 1968 helped bring down the Berlin Wall altogether. It’s not very well understood by the mainstream, but many Czechs and Poles and East Germans of my acquaintance, with more or less “Trotskyist” politics, played a seminal part in those events. And I did my best to stay on their side through those years.
The figure of Trotsky himself, as leader of the “Left Opposition” to Stalin, has many deformities. But I still think he comes out of the twentieth century as a great figure of courageous and engaged dissent, and of the fusion of intellect and action. In my writing, I try to pay respect to the literary and intellectual figures associated with this tradition, from CLR James to Victor Serge. The best-known of this group is of course George Orwell, though he is often not celebrated for that reason.
I am anticipating your next question, but there is in fact a “red thread” that still connects my past to my present views. In discussing things with my Iraqi and Kurdish comrades over the past decade or so, for example, I was quite struck by how many of them came to the struggle against Saddam Hussein by means of some of the same memories, books and traditions that I did. The best of the Iraqi dissident authors, Kanan Makiya, whose books everyone simply has to read if they want to be part of the argument, is the foremost example.
Glazov: After 9/11, you publicly broke with the Left. You resigned from the Nation magazine and came out forcefully supporting Bush’s efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tell us a bit about this turning point in your life. What was the final straw? Was it an excruciating decision? Surely it took a lot of courage to make it. After all, it entailed facing the fact that you yourself may have been wrong on some things and that, well, perhaps that you were also in the company of people that maybe it was a mistake to be in the company of. Tell us a little bit about the intellectual journey here, the decisions you had to make, and perhaps some of the pain – and bravery – that came along with making them.
Hitchens: Well, there’s no bravery involved (as there has been, for example, in Kanan’s case). And my “turning points” are not quite the ones you suppose. The realization that we were in a cultural and political war with Islamic theocracy came to me with force and certainty not on 11 September 2001 but on 14 February 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini offered money in his own name to suborn the murder of my friend Salman Rushdie. On that occasion, as you may forget, the conservative and neo-conservative movement was often rather stupid and neutral, in the case of the Bush establishment because of its then-recent exposure as a sordid client of Khomeini’s in the Iran-contra scandal, and in the case of many neo-cons because they thought Salman was an ally of Third World rebellions, especially the Palestinian one.
The realization that American power could and should be used for the defense of pluralism and as a punishment for fascism came to me in Sarajevo a year or two later. Here, the coalition of forces that eventually saved former Yugoslavia from aggression and ethnocide was made up of some leftists, many Jews and Muslims in America and Europe, many if not most of the neo-conservatives, and Tony Blair’s Labour Government. The mass of mainstream conservatives in America and Britain were indifferent if not openly hostile, and of course many peaceniks kept to their usual line that intervention only leads to quagmires. That was an early quarrel between me and many of my Nation colleagues, and it was also the first time I found myself in the same trench as people like Paul Wolfowitz and Jeanne Kirkpatrick: a shock I had to learn to get over.
On 11 September I was actually in Whitman College, in Washington State, giving the “Scoop” Jackson memorial lecture at his alma mater. Slightly to my surprise, the college and the Jackson family had invited me to speak about my indictment of Henry Kissinger. But on reflection I understood that I needn’t have been so startled: Henry Jackson had always disliked Kissinger for his willingness to sell out the Soviet Jews to Brezhnev, for example, and I point out in my book that it was Kissinger who told Gerald Ford to refuse Solzhenitsyn an invitation to the White House, and who later groveled to the Chinese Stalinists right after Tiananmen Square. He was soft on Communism, as well as on fascism and military dictatorship. (He also opposed any move to stop, let alone to depose, Slobodan Milosevic.)
Watching the towers fall in New York, with civilians incinerated on the planes and in the buildings, I felt something that I couldn’t analyze at first and didn’t fully grasp (partly because I was far from my family in Washington, who had a very grueling day) until the day itself was nearly over. I am only slightly embarrassed to tell you that this was a feeling of exhilaration. Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose. A pity that we let them pick the time and place of the challenge, but we can and we will make up for that.
As to the “Left” I’ll say briefly why this was the finish for me. Here is American society, attacked under open skies in broad daylight by the most reactionary and vicious force in the contemporary world, a force which treats Afghans and Algerians and Egyptians far worse than it has yet been able to treat us. The vaunted CIA and FBI are asleep, at best. The working-class heroes move, without orders and at risk to their lives, to fill the moral and political vacuum. The moral idiots, meanwhile, like Falwell and Robertson and Rabbi Lapin, announce that this clerical aggression is a punishment for our secularism. And the governments of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, hitherto considered allies on our “national security” calculus, prove to be the most friendly to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Here was a time for the Left to demand a top-to-bottom house-cleaning of the state and of our covert alliances, a full inquiry into the origins of the defeat, and a resolute declaration in favor of a fight to the end for secular and humanist values: a fight which would make friends of the democratic and secular forces in the Muslim world. And instead, the near-majority of “Left” intellectuals started sounding like Falwell, and bleating that the main problem was Bush’s legitimacy. So I don’t even muster a hollow laugh when this pathetic faction says that I, and not they, are in bed with the forces of reaction.
Glazov: When a leftist leaves the ranks, he often loses many, if not all, of his friends. In my own experience with leftists, I have learned that when they “like” people, they do not like them for who the people are as actual human beings, but for how their structure of political ideals conforms to their own. If you are a leftist in a leftist crowd and you all of a sudden like George W. Bush and love capitalism, chances are you will soon be made into a non-person.
You were once close friends with individuals such as Alexander Cockburn, Sidney Blumenthal, etc. But it appears not any more. Did your leftist friends abandon you? Or the other way around? Was this dislocation hurtful to you? Did it surprise you?
Hitchens: In fairness to Mr Blumenthal, it must be said that it was I who attacked him first. As for Mr Cockburn, if I admire him as a somewhat ad-hominem polemicist (which I still do, though I think he long ago reached the point of diminishing returns) then I can’t very well complain when his fire is turned in my direction. Some lurid things have been said about me - that I am a racist, a hopeless alcoholic, a closet homosexual and so forth - that I leave to others to decide the truth of. I’d only point out, though, that if true these accusations must also have been true when I was still on the correct side, and that such shocking deformities didn’t seem to count for so much then. Arguing with the Stalinist mentality for more than three decades now, and doing a bit of soapboxing and street-corner speaking on and off, has meant that it takes quite a lot to hurt my tender feelings, or bruise my milk-white skin.
There are also a number of my old comrades, I must say, who have been very solid and eloquent in defending civil society against totalitarianism and theocracy, in America and Europe and the Middle East, and I recognise the esprit of 1968 in many of them, even as this has come to mean less to me personally.
Glazov: What do you consider yourself to be now? Are you still a leftist? Are you a conservative? Do you want to be embraced by neo-conservatives? Or are these labels -- and questions – meaningless/inaccurate to you?
Hitchens: The last time that I consciously wrote anything to “save the honor of the Left,” as I rather pompously put it, was my little book on the crookedness and cowardice and corruption (to put it no higher) of Clinton. I used leftist categories to measure him, in other words, and to show how idiotic was the belief that he was a liberal’s champion. Again, more leftists than you might think were on my side or in my corner, and the book was published by Verso, which is the publishing arm of the New Left Review. However, if a near-majority of leftists and liberals choose to think that Clinton was the target of a witch-hunt and the victim of “sexual McCarthyism,” an Arkansan Alger Hiss in other words, you become weary of debating on their terms and leave them to make the best of it. Which I now see I was beginning to do anyway.
I have been taunted on various platforms recently for becoming a neo-conservative, and have been the object of some fascinating web-site and blog stuff, from the isolationist Right as well as from the peaceniks, who both argue in a semi-literate way that neo-conservativism is Trotskyism and “permanent revolution” reborn.
Sometimes, you have to comb an overt anti-Semitism out of this propaganda before you can even read it straight. And I can guarantee you that none of these characters has any idea at all of what the theory of “permanent revolution” originally meant.
However, there is a sort of buried compliment here that I find I am willing to accept. The neo-cons, or some of them, decided that they would back Clinton when he belatedly decided for Bosnia and Kosovo against Milosevic, and this even though they loathed Clinton, because the battle against religious and ethnic dictatorship in the Balkans took precedence. This, by the way, was partly a battle to save Muslims from Catholic and Christian Orthodox killers. That impressed me. The neo-cons also took the view, quite early on, that coexistence with Saddam Hussein was impossible as well as undesirable. They were dead right about that. They had furthermore been thinking about the menace of jihadism when most people were half-asleep.
And then I have to say that I was rather struck by the way that the Weekly Standard and its associated voices took the decision to get rid of Trent Lott earlier this year, thus removing an embarrassment as well as a disgrace from the political scene. And their arguments were on points of principle, not “perception.” I liked their ruthlessness here, and their seriousness, at a time when much of the liberal Left is not even seriously wrong, but frivolously wrong, and babbles without any sense of responsibility. (I mean, have you read their sub-Brechtian stuff on Halliburton....?) And revolution from above, in some states and cases, is - as I wrote in my book A Long Short War - often preferable to the status quo, or to no revolution at all.
The matter on which I judge people is their willingness, or ability, to handle contradiction. Thus Paine was better than Burke when it came to the principle of the French Revolution, but Burke did and said magnificent things when it came to Ireland, India and America. One of them was in some ways a revolutionary conservative and the other was a conservative revolutionary. It’s important to try and contain multitudes. One of my influences was Dr. Israel Shahak, a tremendously brave Israeli humanist who had no faith in collectivist change but took a Spinozist line on the importance of individuals. Gore Vidal’s admirers, of whom I used to be one and to some extent remain one, hardly notice that his essential critique of America is based on Lindbergh and “America First” - the most conservative position available. The only real radicalism in our time will come as it always has - from people who insist on thinking for themselves and who reject party-mindedness.
Glazov: You took many anti-American positions during the Cold War. Do you regret any of them? Now that you look back, were you wrong in any way? And if you do not think you were wrong, how is that reconcilable with your pro-American positions today in the War on Terror, Iraq, etc? Why is it right to defend freedom in the face of Saddam and Osama, but not in the face of Soviet totalitarianism?
Hitchens: Again, I don’t quite share the grammar of your question, and I dispute the right of conservatives to be automatically complacent on these points. My own Marxist group took a consistently anti-Moscow line throughout the “Cold War,” and was firm in its belief that that Soviet Union and its European empire could not last. Very few people believed that this was the case: the best known anti-Communist to advance the proposition was the great Robert Conquest, but he himself insists that part of the credit for such prescience goes to Orwell. More recently, a very exact prefiguration of the collapse of the USSR was offered by two German Marxists, one of them from the West (Hans Magnus Enzensberger) and one from the East (Rudolf Bahro, the accuracy of whose prediction was almost uncanny). I have never met an American conservative who has even heard of, let alone read, either of these authors.
Reasonably certain in the view that the official enemy was being over-estimated (as it famously was by the CIA, for example, until at least 1990) and that it would be eclipsed, I also believed that the conflict was never worth even the risk of a nuclear war. I was right about that. And I detested the way that “Cold War” rhetoric was used to justify things, like the salvage of French colonialism in Indochina or the prolonging of white rule in Southern Africa, which were deservedly doomed in the first place and which in their origins predated the Bolshevik Revolution. I was right about that, too. I did believe that an alternative version of democratic socialism was available to outweigh and replace both global empires, though I find that this conviction has fallen away from me and may never have been a real option - though I am not ashamed of having upheld it.
Glazov: You refer to the “alternative version of democratic socialism” that you wished “was available to outweigh and replace both global empires.” In reference to both of the sides of the Cold War, you appear to be implying some kind of moral equivalency between a system that liquidated 100 million human beings in the 20th century and another system, within which you lived, that allowed you to gain many material and cultural rewards for criticizing it. Can it be denied that America represented freedom, democracy and the forces of “good” in the face of Soviet communism?
Hitchens: Yes it can be denied in very many cases. Just to give you one example in which I was very much involved myself, there is no doubt that the United States imposed a dictatorship, with a fascist ideology, on Greece (a NATO member and member of the Council of Europe) in 1967. This was done simply in order that the wrong party not win the upcoming elections. The result was a disastrous war in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as the stifling of liberty in Greece. One could go on - I have never seen anyone argue that the mass murder in East Timor, for example, helped to bring down the Berlin Wall. You might want to took at my little book on Henry Kissinger, which shows what much more conservative historians have elsewhere established - that during the Nixon years the USA was a rogue state. Alas those were not the only such years.
My self-criticism here would be a different one from the one you solicit. I was more pessimistic than I should have been about the likelihood of the United States reforming itself. In the long run, the constitutional and democratic impulses reasserted themselves. To put it shortly, I much prefer an America that removes Saddam Hussein to the America that helped install and nurture him - and unlike you I am not willing to overlook these important pre-existing facts.
Glazov: I am not sure what is so complicated about the fact that in a world of good and evil, the forces of good must sometimes temporarily ally themselves with certain unlikable forces against the most terrible and dangerous evils of the time. But we’ll have to return to this theme perhaps in another exchange.
I’d like to get back to the Left and the War on Terror. As a person who is familiar with the leftist mindset, why do you think the Left has taken the position it does on the War on Terror? Despots and terrorists like Saddam and Osama are the greatest persecutors of all leftist ideals and values. How can the Left not be violently opposed to such figures and the systems they lead? Where are radical Western feminists, for instance, screaming for the rights of women under militant Islam?
Hitchens: Concerning Iraq, I have to remind you that those of us who took the regime-change position (I invited the readers of my Nation column to support the Iraqi National Congress and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan several years ago) were confronted first by the arguments of Bush Senior - who wrote openly that it was better and safer to leave Saddam in power in 1991 - and of Bush Junior, who ran against Gore on the question of “nation building.” We also had to fight against the CIA, as we indeed still do, and against the Buchanan-type forces grouped around the magazine The American Conservative. Finally, we faced the conservative Arabists of the State Department and at least half of the staff of Kissinger Associates. So don’t be so goddam cocky about who was, or was not “pro-American.” Having changed my own mind after the end of the first “Gulf War,” I had at least as many arguments to conduct with Washington’s right wing as I did with the soft or the dogmatic left, and would not wish this any other way.
Glazov: I would like to focus in on the Left’s mindset. What is it deep down in the heart of a leftist anti-war activist that spawns his opposition to Bush in the face of an evil such as Saddam and Osama?
Hitchens: There is a noticeable element of the pathological in some current leftist critiques, which I tend to attribute to feelings of guilt allied to feelings of impotence. Not an attractive combination, because it results in self-hatred.
Glazov: Well, Mr. Hitchens, we are running out of time. What, in your view, should the U.S. do in Iraq? In the War on Terror in general? Must we pursue the policy of pre-emptive strikes?
Hitchens: The Bush administration was right on the main issue of removing Saddam as the pre-condition, but I whimper when I think of the opportunities that have since been missed. The crucial thing was obviously the empowerment of the Iraqis: I don’t like this being adopted as a grudging final resort. And it seems nobody will be fired for failing to think about things - like generators for heaven’s sake - that are simply an aspect of American “can do” culture. The humiliating attempt to involve the Turkish army in Iraq - which is one of the things I flatly disagree with Wolfowitz about - should never have been permitted in the first place.
The anti-war and neutralist forces share the blame here, because there was nothing to stop them saying, very well Mr. President, let us commonly design a plan for a new Iraq and think about what will be needed. Instead, all energy had to be spent on convincing people that Iraq should no longer be run by a psychotic crime family - which if the other side had had its way, it still would be. And we could be looking forward to the Uday/Qusay succession!
The “pre-emption” versus “prevention” debate may be a distinction without much difference. The important thing is to have it understood that the United States is absolutely serious. The jihadists have in the past bragged that America is too feeble and corrupt to fight. A lot is involved in disproving that delusion on their part.
Glazov: Are you hopeful that we will win the War on Terror against militant Islam and rogue regimes?
Hitchens: Since I do still find that I use the method of historical materialism (not yet surpassed by any rival) I think it’s worth stating some unarguable propositions. First - all jihads have always failed. The last serious one, which was the declaration of a holy war by the Ottoman Empire in 1914, ended by the loss of that empire as well as the loss of the war, and was a defeat and erasure so complete that many people who hear Osama bin Laden’s call for the restoration of the Caliphate don’t even know what he’s screeching about. Lesser jihads tend to consume themselves in quarrels over spoils or doctrines: an irrational view of the world will tell against you in the end, as is shown by the crazy and self-destructive tactics now being pursued by Islamists in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Turkey and elsewhere. They wish to be martyrs - we should be willing to help.
Second - dictatorship is a very unstable and uncertain (and highly vulnerable) method of rule. Third, no combination of dictatorship and clericalism can possibly stand against the determined power of the United States. In other words, the eventual result is certain victory, military and political, however long the task may take. It can be useful to bear this in mind. The job of citizens is to make sure that this American power really is self-determined, and not left either to professionals or to amateurs. We are not watching for the outcome of this war: we are participants in it and had better comport ourselves as such.
Glazov: Last question: in terms of your own position on Iraq and the War on Terror, are you making any headway or inroads in leftist ranks? Are any segments of the Left receptive to your message? How have you been received by the Left in general with your stance?
Hitchens: Most of the leftists I know are hoping openly or secretly to leverage difficulty in Iraq in order to defeat George Bush. For innumerable reasons, including the one I cited earlier, I think that this is a tactic and a mentality utterly damned by any standard of history or morality. What I mainly do is try to rub that in.
As I’ve told you before, there are some former comrades who take a decent position but they all half-understand that it’s now an anomalous one in terms of the “Left” as a whole. Some pessimistic liberals who don’t wish to sabotage the effort still describe the war against jihadism and dictatorship as “unwinnable.”
My short reply is that it is un-loseable. We still haven’t captured Radovan Karadzic or Ratko Mladic, who are hiding somewhere in Europe ten years after murdering over 10,000 Muslims in one day. But their protector regime is gone and one day they will be caught or killed. Osama bin Laden is dead in my opinion, and probably has been dead for more than a year. Saddam Hussein is alive, but not where he planned to be.
The Taliban and the Ba’ath and the Serbian Socialist Party will not regain power, however much violence they muster. These are facts. The combat as a whole will never be “over” because it is part of a permanent struggle between reason and unreason, among other things. But to assert that rather minimal point is also to assert that the enemy cannot win. Given the proven nature of that enemy, I hope I need not say any more about what I think of its subconscious sympathizers, let alone its overt ones.