Ukraine and the Spectre of Christopher Hitchens

Ben Burgis

June 2, 2022

The United States and Russia are closer to the brink of World War III than they’ve been at any time since at least the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even in 1962 the CIA wasn’t assassinating Russian generals and bragging about it to The New York Times.

You would think that the Left, such as it is, would be squarely on the side of de-escalation and peace negotiations—and to a great extent, you’d be right. Magazines like Jacobin and Current Affairs have been running non-stop articles along those lines. Noam Chomsky is doing what Noam Chomsky does and the Democratic Socialists of America are very much on the same page. All of the above have taken a fair amount of heat as a result. DSA was denounced by the White House Rapid Response Team, for example, and Chomsky was dragged all over Twitter as a “Putin apologist.” Given the realities of a largely unorganized working class and major defeats for even those moderate social democratic politicians who are (often ambiguously) aligned with us the serious Left has depressingly little institutional power. But if the ruling classes of Russia and the United States are going to play Nuclear Roulette, I’m glad I’m part of a movement that’s at least trying to stand up for basic sanity.

Conversely, it’s been disturbing to see good progressives who I would normally think of as at least soft political allies singing a very different tune. I just wrote a book about Christopher Hitchens, and as I watch anti-war leftists get accused of supporting “appeasement” because they want Biden and Putin to step back from the brink, it’s hard not to hear a jarring echo of the posh and boozy tones of War on Terror-era Hitchens as he absurdly accused the Chomskyite dissidents of that era of being “pro-Saddam.”

Hitchens and the Left

The “Hitch” was in many ways a brilliant writer, speaker, and debater—that last item being of particular interest to me. The first name with his book on the cover, a collection of Marx and Engels’s writings on the Paris Commune edited and introduced by Hitchens, came out in 1971. He was in the middle of writing the last of the very personal essays about his experience with oesophageal cancer that were later anthologized in a book called Mortality when he died from complications of that cancer in 2011.

During the first forty years of that career, he produced, just to start with his 1990s “greatest hits,” wonderful books attacking Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa. (If you’re wondering what Mother Teresa is doing with those other two, all I