Going it Alone: Christopher Hitchens and the death of the Left

Hitchens and his critics

Yeah, I know, Hitchens can sometimes be a massive PITA blowhard. However, this book review points out how his quite public split from hardcore socialism does serve to highlight many of the problems the Left faces now. For one thing, Hitchens is more than happy to point out the flaws and often hits home. At the very least, his thoughts deserve consideration.

Still, his repeated insistence on the plight of the Kurds under Saddam did serve to effectively dramatize the disappearance of Left internationalism. “When I first became a socialist,” [Hitchens] writes,

[…] the imperative of international solidarity was the essential if not defining thing, whether the cause was popular or not. I haven’t seen an anti-war meeting all this year [2002] at which you could even guess at the existence of the Iraqi and Kurdish opposition to Saddam, an opposition that was fighting for “regime change” when both Republicans and Democrats were fawning over Baghdad as a profitable client and geopolitical ally. [105]

Those on the Left who tacitly defended Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein did so because of an inherited moral and intellectual rot. A consequence of this was that “instead of internationalism, we find among the Left now a sort of affectless, neutralist, smirking isolationism” [108], one manifestation of which was the anti-war movement’s willingness to bracket out of consideration the fate of Iraqi Leftist or oppositionist parties and trade unions, if not to condemn them outright as U.S. “stooges.” For their part, groups like the ISO and Spartacist League, by simply dusting off the slogans of earlier struggles, ignore the historical gulf that separates the current anti-war movement from, say, the movement that opposed the Vietnam War. The claims of such groups that, as they would put it, blows struck against American imperialism are blows in the interests of workers and the oppressed worldwide, have become unmeaning mantras by the muttering repetition of which such groups on the left withdraw into insensibility.

When I was involved with a Marxist group a few years back, a senior member told me in complete apparent seriousness that Mugabe of Zimbabwe must be defended because he “stands against imperialism.” My inability to agree with such idiotic fanaticism is a primary reason I was eventually purged. And the Left wonders why it is marginalized? Too often, it has done it to itself.

Rejecting the consensus view that the 1960s New Left represents a high-water mark of radical politics, Hitchens argues that, in fact, the conservativism of today’s pseudo-Left derives from precisely that period:

If you look back to the founding document of the 60’s left, which was the Port Huron statement . . . you will easily see that it was in essence a conservative manifesto. It spoke in vaguely Marxist terms of alienation, true, but it was reacting to bigness and anonymity and urbanization, and it betrayed a yearning for a lost agrarian simplicity. It forgot what Marx had said, about the dynamism of capitalism and ”the idiocy of rural life.”

All that endures today on “the Left” is precisely this anti-modern strain of the 1960s.

Tom Wolfe once said in reference to his book “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test” that Tim Leary said ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’ but Kesey said take all the glitter, hype, and neon and make something better out of it, and that Kesey was right but no one noticed at the time. I would agree.

(And I would hasten to add, rural life itself is not idiotic. DJ, who posts here, has a small ranch with his wife in Utah and they love it. However they have cell phones and Internet access, which makes life way less isolated for those in the country than in Marx’s time. But everyone can’t go back to a rural way of life. Tractors (and cell phone and computers) need to be made in the city. It’s that romantic ideal of country life that Kesey was reacting to, not actually living in the country.)

All that endures today on “the Left” is precisely this anti-modern strain of the 1960s. Describing the route from Port Huron to Seattle, Hitchens notes, “the anti-globalization movement has started to reject modernity altogether, to set its sights on laboratories and on the idea of the division of labor, and to adopt symbols from Fallujah as the emblems of its resistance” [“Where Aquarius Went,” New York Times (online edition) 12/19/04]. If we are in politically dire straits, this is not because the New Left betrayed the ideals of its youth, but because it upheld them.

The Left does sometimes seem stuck in a time warp, like an out-of-shape middle-aged man wheezing about his glory days playing high school football, as his current life meanders nowhere. Capitalism will happily reinvent itself overnight when it needs to. Conservatives reinvented the Republican Party in the late 60’s-early 70’s and turned it into a juggernaut until Obama. The Left can do the same. In fact, it needs to.


  • UJ

    No, no, no!!

    Bob you make some really good points but then its mucked all up by dropping in the Hitchens garbage. He’s not some great political intellectual that we should learn from, he’s a phony and a hypocrite! He exists only to give other Post 9/11 Neoconservatives an excuse, a get out of jail free card, for betraying all of their other convictions for the sake of looking like a big tough guy against terrorism.

    He even manages to contradict himself in just the few pieces you cited. On the one hand, the left are assholes for not supporting the Kurds, but then on the other hand, the left are also assholes for supporting the Sunnis in Fallujah TOO MUCH! What the hell? He’s just looking for something to hold against them so he, and his naive followers, can feel better about dumping their principles at the first sign of political, or commercial, opportunity (gotta hock them books!)

    Then you have the absurd notion that the anti-globalization crowd, those folks who pioneered digital organizing (Indymedia is a website, not a TV station) are somehow some sort of luddite “anti-modernity” fascists! As opposed to what? The scumbags like Hitchens, who seem to think drunken slobbering on MSNBC is the best way to get your message across? Brilliant! I’m sure he’s definitely the one we need to be listening to.

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Man, Fuck Christopher Hitchens!!!

    • I’m not defending Hitchens, just using the review as a vehicle for what I’ve been blogging frequently about, that the hard Left is in sorry shape and needs to do something about it now.

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