A recurring theme in the critical reviews of Christopher Hitchens’ life – and a few of the friendly ones – was that the writer lurched to the right after September 11, specifically through his support of the Iraq war. While there is no no doubt that Hitchens made a decisive break with the ‘anti-imperialist’ left, the notion that support for the Iraq war was, in and off itself, right-wing, I believe needs challenging.
Hitchens always seemed unconcerned with defending the ‘left credentials’ of his position but in his many attacks on the anti-war movement, he, at least implicitly, did make the ‘left case’ for the war, by highlighting the principles that the left were supposed to hold dear.
Nick Cohen wrote, in his fine piece in the Observer on Sunday, that Hitchens took pleasure in his break with the anti-war left.
“I won’t give you any guff about the left leaving Hitchens rather than Hitchens leaving the left. He walked out and slammed the door with barely one regretful glance over his shoulder. He remained a friend of and inspiration to many leftish writers, but for the “anti-imperialist left” that embraced life-denying, women-hating, gay-killing Islamists, he had nothing but contempt. Its indulgence of religious reaction had ruined it beyond redemption.”
Indeed – and of course, while Hitchens did not aspire to be and was not asked to be, the leader of any sort of movement or tendency on the left, there were plenty of others who felt the same way, who could no longer tolerate the idea of ‘comradeship’ with those who, not to put too fine a point on it, had allied themselves with the other side. Hitchens himself addressed this in explicitly leftist terminology:
“The bad faith of a majority of the left is instanced by four things (apart, that is, from mass demonstrations in favor of prolonging the life of a fascist government). First, the antiwar forces never asked the Iraqi left what it wanted, because they would have heard very clearly that their comrades wanted the overthrow of Saddam. (President Jalal Talabani’s party, for example, is a member in good standing of the Socialist International.) This is a betrayal of what used to be called internationalism.
Second, the left decided to scab and blackleg on the Kurds, whose struggle is the oldest cause of the left in the Middle East. Third, many leftists and liberals stressed the cost of the Iraq intervention as against the cost of domestic expenditure, when if they had been looking for zero-sum comparisons they might have been expected to cite waste in certain military programs, or perhaps the cost of the “war on drugs.” This, then, was mere cynicism. Fourth, and as mentioned, their humanitarian talk about the sanctions turned out to be the most inexpensive hypocrisy. “ (source )
Many of us, who backed the war, continued to view ourselves as part of the left, in some way. We may have wanted to put a moat between ourselves and the anti-war movement, but we didn’t want to be viewed as right-wing, or conservatives (‘neo’ or otherwise) just because of our stance on Iraq. I am thinking of centre-left social democrats who didn’t go along with the anti-war consensus in the Labour Party, left liberals in the U.S. Democrat Party who didn’t like their opposition to George W Bush turn them into ‘Not in Our Name’ allies of ANSWER or the smaller group of Marxists who supported the overthrow of the Saddam dictatorship in Iraq on anti-fascist or broader humanitarian grounds.
Hitchens addressed that matter, sometimes in fairly direct terms: “You might think that the Left could have a regime-change perspective of its own, based on solidarity with its comrades abroad. After all, Saddam’s ruling Ba’ath Party consolidated its power by first destroying the Iraqi communist and labor movements, and then turning on the Kurds (whose cause, historically, has been one of the main priorities of the Left in the Middle East). When I first became a socialist, the imperative of international solidarity was the essential if not the defining thing, whether the cause was popular or risky or not.”
In fact, there were people, scattered around the left, in this place and that, who did have a regime-change perspective, who did carry out solidarity work with Iraqi trade unions and Kurdish democrats and so on. It was a minority, for sure, but by no means an insignificant one.
There were voices who saw no inconsistency between being in favor of removing Saddam from power whilst supporting policies aimed at helping the poor at home. It was, and is, possible to be ‘of the left’ and a supporter of the Iraq war.
The Iraq war argument is over — but it remains important to offer the occasional reminder that, there was dissent from the anti-war position on the left and that the notion that Hitchens was some sort of isolated renegade or eccentric on the issue is unfair and wrong.
Hitchens didn’t lurch right on Iraq — rather he was the most articulate exponent of the pro-regime change left.
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See also: Marc Cooper’s ‘Remembering Christopher’ which looks at the issue of the alleged ‘lurch’:
Hitchens’ trajectory since 9/11 and his support for the war in Iraq was much more one of continuity than of any radical shift or lurch. Unlike Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz liberals, Hitchens did not see the world as only a domestic struggle between nasty Republicans and weak Democrats. His view was that of an internationalist, a revolutionary (albeit of the cafe persuasion) who passionately identified with those fighting for liberation, be it against the Argentine and Chilean dictatorships or the totalitarian Stalinist regimes in Poland or Czechoslavakia.