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An Interview with Christopher Hitchens: Adieu to the Left By: Johann Hari
JohannHari.com | Monday, October 04, 2004


To many of Christopher Hitchens' old friends, he died on September 11th 2001. Tariq Ali considered himself a comrade of Christopher Hitchens for over thirty years. Now he speaks about him with bewilderment. "On 11th September 2001, a small group of terrorists crashed the planes they had hijacked into the Twin Towers of New York. Among the casualties, although unreported that week, was a middle-aged Nation columnist called Christopher Hitchens. He was never seen again," Ali writes. "The vile replica currently on offer is a double."

This encapsulates how many of Hitchens' old allies - a roll-call of the Left's most distinguished intellectuals, from Noam Chomsky to Alexander Cockburn to (until his premature death last year) Edward Said - view his transformation. On September 10th, he was campaigning for Henry Kissinger to be arraigned before a war crimes tribunal in the Hague for his massive and systematic crimes against humanity in the 1960s and 1970s. He was preparing to testify in the Vatican - as a literal Devil's Advocate - against the canonisation of Mother Theresa, who he had exposed as a sadistic Christian fundamentalist, an apologist for some of the world's ugliest dictatorships, and a knowing beneficiary of corporate fraud. Hitchens was sailing along the slow, certain route from being the Left's belligerent bad boy to being one of its most revered old men.

And then a hijacked plane flew into the Pentagon - a building which stands just ten minutes' from Hitchens' home. The island of Manhattan became engulfed in smoke. Within a year, Hitchens was damning his former comrades as "soft on Islamic fascism," giving speeches at the Bush White House, and describing himself publicly as "a recovering ex-Trotskyite." What happened?

When I arrive, he is reclining in his usual cloud of Rothmans' smoke and sipping a whisky. "You're late," he says sternly. I begin to flap, and he laughs. "It's fine," he says and I give him a big hug. On the morning of September 11th, once I had checked everybody I knew in New York was safe, I thought of Hitch who had become a friend since he encouraged my early journalistic efforts. He had been campaigning against Islamic fundamentalism for decades. I knew this assault this would blast him into new political waters - and I buckled a mental seatbelt for the bumpy ride ahead.

I decide to open with the most basic of questions. Where would he place himself on the political spectrum today? "I don't have a political allegiance now, and I doubt I ever will have again. I can no longer describe myself as a socialist. I miss it like a lost limb." He takes a sip from his drink. "But I don't regret anything. I'm still fighting for Kissinger to be brought to justice. The socialist movement enabled universal suffrage, the imposition of limits upon exploitation, and the independence of colonial and subject populations. Its achievements were real, and I'm glad I was part of it. Where it succeeded, one can be proud of it. Where it failed - as in the attempt to stop the First World War and later to arrest the growth of fascism - one can honourably regret its failure."

He realised he was not a socialist any longer around three years ago. "Often young people ask me for political advice, and when you are talking to the young, you mustn't bullshit. It's one thing when you are sitting with old comrades to talk about reviving the left, but you can't say that to somebody who is just starting out. And what could I say to these people? I had to ask myself - is there an international socialist movement worth the name? No. No, there is not. Okay - will it revive? No, it won't. Okay then - but is there at least a critique of capitalism that has a potential for replacing it? Not that I can identify."

"If the answer to all these questions is no, then I have no right to go around calling myself a socialist. It's more like an affectation." But Hitch - there are still hundreds of causes on the left, even if the ?socialist' tag is outdated. You used to write about acid rain, the crimes of the IMF and World Bank, the death penalty... It's hard to imagine you writing about them now. He explains that he is still vehemently against the death penalty and "I haven't forgotten the 152 people George Bush executed in Texas." But the other issues? He seems to wave them aside as "anti-globalisation" causes - a movement he views with contempt.

He explains that he believes the moment the Left's bankruptcy became clear was on 9/11. "The United States was attacked by theocratic fascists who represents all the most reactionary elements on earth. They stand for liquidating everything the left has fought for: women's rights, democracy? And how did much of the left respond? By affecting a kind of neutrality between America and the theocratic fascists." He cites the cover of one of Tariq Ali's books as the perfect example. It shows Bush and Bin Laden morphed into one on its cover. "It's explicitly saying they are equally bad. However bad the American Empire has been, it is not as bad as this. It is not the Taliban, and anybody - any movement - that cannot see the difference has lost all moral bearings."

Hitchens - who has just returned from Afghanistan - says, "The world these [al-Quadea and Taliban] fascists want to create is one of constant submission and servility. The individual only has value to them if they enter into a life of constant reaffirmation and prayer. It is pure totalitarianism, and one of the ugliest totalitarianisms we've seen. It's the irrational combined with the idea of a completely closed society. To stand equidistant between that and a war to remove it is?" He shakes his head. I have never seen Hitch grasping for words before.

Some people on the left tried to understand the origins of al-Quadea as really being about inequalities in wealth, or Israel's brutality towards the Palestinians, or other legitimate grievances. "Look: inequalities in wealth had nothing to do with Beslan or Bali or Madrid," Hitchens says. "The case for redistributing wealth is either good or it isn't - I think it is - but it's a different argument. If you care about wealth distribution, please understand, the Taliban and the al-Qaeda murderers have less to say on this than even the most cold-hearted person on Wall Street. These jihadists actually prefer people to live in utter, dire poverty because they say it is purifying. Nor is it anti-imperialist: they explictly want to recreate the lost Caliphate, which was an Empire itself."

He continues, "I just reject the whole mentality that says, we need to consider this phenomenon in light of current grievances. It's an insult to the people who care about the real grievances of the Palestinians and the Chechens and all the others. It's not just the wrong interpretation of those causes; it's their negation." And this goes for the grievances of the Palestinians, who he has dedicated a great deal of energy to documenting and supporting. "Does anybody really think that if every Jew was driven from Palestine, these guys would go back to their caves? Nobody is blowing themselves up for a two-state solution. They openly say, 'We want a Jew-free Palestine, and a Christian-free Palestine.' And that would very quickly become, 'Don't be a Shia Muslim around here, baby.'" He supports a two-state solution - but he doesn't think it will solve the jihadist problem at all.

Can he ever see a defeat for this kind of Islamofascism? "This kind of theocratic fascism will never die because we belong to a very poorly-evolved mammarian species. I'm a complete materialist in that sense. We're stuck with being the product of a very sluggish evolution. Our pre-frontal lobes are too small and our adrenaline glands are too big. Our fear of the dark and of death is very intense, and people will always be able to profit from that. But nor can I see this kind of fascism winning. They couldn't even run Afghanistan. Our victory is assured - so we can afford to be very scrupulous in our methods."

But can he see a time when this kind of jihadist fever will be as marginalised as, say, Nazism is now, confined to a few reactionary eccentrics? "Not without what that took - which is an absolutely convincing defeat and discrediting. Something unarguable. I wouldn't exclude any measure either. There's nothing I wouldn't do to stop this form of fascism."

He is appalled that some people on the left are prepared to do almost nothing to defeat Islamofascism. "When I see some people who claim to be on the left abusing that tradition, making excuses for the most reactionary force in the world, I do feel pain that a great tradition is being defamed. So in that sense I still consider myself to be on the Left." A few months ago, when Bush went to Ireland for the G8 meeting, Hitchens was on a TV debate with the leader of a small socialist party in the Irish dail. "He said these Islamic fascists are doing this because they have deep-seated grievances. And I said, 'Ah yes, they
have many grievances. They are aggrieved when they see unveiled woman. And they are aggrieved that we tolerate homosexuals and Jews and free speech and the reading of literature.'"

"And this man - who had presumably never met a jihadist in his life - said, 'No, it's about their economic grievances.' Well, of course, because the Taliban provided great healthcare and redistribution of wealth, didn't they? After the debate was over, I said, 'If James Connolly [the Irish socialist leader of the Easter Risings] could hear you defending these theocratic fascist barbarians, you would know you had been in a fight. Do you know what you are saying? Do you know who you are pissing on?'"

Many of us can agree passionately with all that - but it is a huge leap to actually supporting Bush. George Orwell - one of Hitchens' intellectual icons - managed to oppose fascism and Stalinism from the Left without ever offering a word of support for Winston Churchill. Can't Hitch agitate for a fight against Islamofascism without backing this awful President?

He explains by talking about the origins of his relationship with the neconservatives in Washington. "I first became interested in the neocons during the war in Bosnia-Herzgovinia. That war in the early 1990s changed a lot for me. I never thought I would see, in Europe, a full-dress reprise of internment camps, the mass murder of civilians, the reinstiutution of torture and rape as acts of policy. And I didn't expect so many of my comrades to be indifferent - or even take the side of the fascists."

"It was a time when many people on the left were saying 'Don't intervene, we'll only make things worse' or, 'Don't intervene, it might destabilise the region,'" he continues. "And I thought - destabilization of fascist regimes is a good thing. Why should the left care about the stability of undemocratic regimes? Wasn't it a good thing to destabilize the regime of General Franco?"

"It was a time when the left was mostly taking the conservative, status quo position - leave the Balkans alone, leave Milosevic alone, do nothing. And that kind of conservatism can easily mutate into actual support for the aggressors. Weimar-style conservatism can easily mutate into National Socialism," he elaborates. "So you had people like Noam Chomsky's co-author Ed Herman go from saying 'Do nothing in the Balkans,' to actually supporting[ital] Milosevic, the most reactionary force in the region."

"That's when I began to first find myself on the same side as the neocons. I was signing petitions in favour of action in Bosnia, and I would look down the list of names and I kept finding, there's Richard Perle. There's Paul Wolfowitz. That seemed interesting to me. These people were saying that we had to act." He continues, "Before, I had avoided them like the plague, especially because of what they said about General Sharon and about Nicaragua. But nobody could say they were interested in oil in the Balkans, or in strategic needs, and the people who tried to say that - like Chomsky - looked ridiculous. So now I was interested."

There are two strands of conservatism on the U.S. Right that Hitch has always opposed. The first was the Barry Goldwater-Pat Buchanan isolationist Right. They argued for "America First" - disengagement from the world, and the abandonment of Europe to fascism. The second was the Henry Kissinger Right, which argued for the installation of pro-American, pro-business regimes, even if it meant liquidating democracies (as in Chile or Iran) and supporting and equipping practitioners of genocide.

He believes neoconservatism is a distinctively new strain of thought, preached by ex-leftists, who believed in using US power to spread democracy. "It's explicitly anti-Kissingerian. Kissinger hates this stuff. He opposed intervening in the Balkans. Kissinger Associates were dead against [the war in] Iraq. He can't understand the idea of backing democracy - it's totally alien to him."

"So that interest in the neocons re-emerged after September 11th. They were saying - we can't carry on with the approach to the Middle East we have had for the past fifty years. We cannot go on with this proxy rule racket, where we back tyranny in the region for the sake of stability. So we have to take the risk of uncorking it and hoping the more progressive side wins." He has replaced a belief in Marxist revolution with a belief in spreading the American revolution. Thomas Jefferson has displaced Karl Marx.

But can we trust the Bush administration - filled with people like Dick Cheney, who didn't even support the release of Nelson Mandela - to support democracy and the spread of American values now? He offers an anecdote in response. There is a new liberal-left heroine in the States called Azar Nafisi. Her book Reading Lolita in Tehran documents an underground feminist resistance movement to the Iranian Mullahs that concentrated on reading great - and banned - works of Western literature. "And who is this book by an icon of the Iranian resistance dedicated to? [Deputy Secretary of Defence] Paul Wolfowitz, the bogeyman of the left, and the intellectual force behind [the recent war in] Iraq."

With the fine eye for ideological division that comes from a life on the Trotskyite Left, Hitch diagnoses the intellectual divisions within the Bush administration. He does not ally himself with the likes of Cheney; he backs the small sliver of pure neocon thought he associates with Wolfowitz. "The thing that would most surprise people about Wolfowitz if they met him is that he's a real bleeding heart. He's from a Polish-Jewish immigrant family. You know the drill - Kennedy Democrats, some of the family got out of Poland in time and some didn't make it, civil rights marchers? He impressed me when he was speaking at a pro-Israel rally in Washington a few years ago and he made a point of talking about Palestinian suffering. He didn't have to do it - at all - and he was booed. He knew he would be booed, and he got it. I've taken time to find out what he thinks about these issues, and it's always interesting."

He gives an account of how the neocon philosophy affected the course of the Iraq war. "The CIA - which is certainly not neoconservative - wanted to keep the Iraqi army together because you never know when you might need a large local army. That's how the U.S. used to govern. It's a Kissinger way of thinking. But Wolfowitz and others wanted to disband the Iraqi army, because they didn't want anybody to even suspect that they wanted to restore military rule." He thinks that if this philosophy can become dominant within the Republican Party, it can turn U.S. power into a revolutionary force.

I feel simultaneously roused by Hitch's arguments and strangely disconcerted. Why did Hitch so enthusiastically back the administration's bogus WMD arguments - arguments he still stands by? I think of the Bush administration's denial of global warming, the hideous 'structural adjustment' programmes it rams down the throats of the world's poor (including Iraq's), its description of Ariel Sharon as "a man of peace"? Why intellectually compromise on all these issues and back Bush?

Bosnia was not the only precedent for Hitch's reaction to 9/11. He was disgusted by the West's slothful, grudging reaction to the fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie. Back in 1989, he was writing about the "absurdity" of "seeing Islamic fundamentalism as an anti-imperial movement." He was similarly appalled by the American Left's indulgence of Bill Clinton's crimes, including the execution of a mentally disabled black man and the bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan that led to the deaths of more than 10,000 innocent Sudanese people. This brought him into close contact with the Clinton-hating Right - and made him view their opponents with disgust.

And so the separation of Hitch and the organized Left occurred. Is it permanent? Nobody was a better fighter for left-wing causes than Hitch. Nobody makes the left-wing case against Islamofascism and Ba'athism better than him today. Yet he undermines these vital arguments by backing Bush and indulging in wishful thinking about the Republicans.

As I luxuriate in the warm bath of his charisma, I want to almost physically drag him all the way back to us. He might be dead to the likes of Tariq Ali but there is still a large constituency of people on the left who understand how abhorrent Islamic fundamentalism is. Why leave us behind? I stammer that I can't imagine him ever settling down on the American Right. He pauses, and I desperately hope that he will agree with me. "Not the Buchanan-Reagan Right, no," he says. There is a pause. I expect him to continue, but he doesn't.

Back in the mid-1980s, Hitch lambasted a small U.S. magazine called the Partsian Review for its "decline into neoconservatism". I don't think Hitch is lost to the Left quite yet. He will never stop campaigning for the serial murderer Henry Kissinger to be brought to justice, and his hatred of Islamic fundamentalism is based on good left-wing principles. But it does feel at the end of our three-hour lunch like I have been watching him slump into neoconservatism. Come home, Hitch - we need you.




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