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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 can say is read the book—Hitch has the Ghoul of Calcutta dead to rights on subjects ranging from her close relationship with the Duvalier regime in Haiti to her refusal to use the money pouring in from donations all around the world to buy proper anesthetics for the sick and dying people under her care. Suffering, she believed, brought them closer to God.) Hitchens’s pamphlet attacking the British monarchy is golden and, given that the Brits have inexplicably not succeeded in abolishing that institution three decades later, evergreen. So is a whole lot of what he wrote during his decades as a columnist at The Nation. One of my goals in writing about Hitchens was to introduce this body of work to contemporary left-wing readers too young to remember that Hitchens. If they remember him at all, what they remember is what he became after September 11th, 2001.

I also want to provide a more plausible diagnosis of how Early Hitchens became Late Hitchens than anything I’d read from other left-wing sources. A big part of the reason I continue to find the guy so fascinating has to do with a combination of deep admiration for some parts of his work and deep revulsion with others. One of my chapter titles is, “What the Hell Happened?”

Standard explanations by his disgusted ex-comrades felt unsatisfying to me. At least one big-name leftie who overlapped with Hitch’s time working at The Nation told me “the booze just ate his brain.” Others speculate that “Islamophobia” possibly stemming from Hitchens’s intense atheism had something to do with it. And since the specific kind of Marxist that Hitch had been in the 70s was a Trotskyist, I’ve heard a lot about the alleged “trot to neocon pipeline.” But from where I’m sitting none of that adds up. The “Islamophobia” explanation, for example, just doesn’t fit the timeline. It’s true enough that whatever was left of Hitchens’s anti-imperialism pretty much went away after 9/11. It’s also true that he overestimated the level of threat that Al Qaeda-style terrorism could realistically pose to western societies to a pretty absurd extent. That wasn’t exactly an unusual problem to have in the post-9/11 years, but if you want to call it Islamophobia, I certainly won’t fight you on that point.

Even so, far from being some sudden dramatic transformation, the substance of Hitchens’s foreign policy views had been evolving for almost a decade before the planes hit the towers. The first war that made him warm up to the idea that the American military could be a force for good in the world wasn’t one where the United States was bombing Muslims. It was Bosnia, where the US was intervening on behalf of Muslims against ethnic-cleansing Serbian Orthodox Christians. And his eagerness to see Saddam Hussein out of power had a lot to do with his time in the Kurdish enclave in Northern Iraq—a group whose leaders were, no less than the Ba’athists they opposed, largely secular Muslims. As my friend Djene Bajalan points out, many of the Kurdish leaders were former 1970s radicals themselves, and they could speak to Hitch in his own language. That’s a hugely important part of Hitchens’s evolution. In the final years of his life, he wore a Kurdish flag pin everywhere he went.

I’m about as skeptical about the “pipeline” which Stalinists believe connects Trotskyism to later coming to hold foreign policy views that can be at least vaguely described as neoconservative. The vast majority of ex-Trotskyists whose politics change later in life, like the vast majority of Stalinists who lose their earlier radicalism, just become liberals. In the specific case of Christopher Hitchens, he continued to consider himself to be some sort of moderate socialist throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s but there were almost thirty years between Hitch’s youthful membership in a small Trotskyist organization and his coming to agree with the neocons about Iraq. That’s one hell of a “pipeline.”

…and no, I don’t think bottles of Hitch’s beloved Johnny Walker Black need to come with labels warning EXCESSIVE CONSUMPTION MAY LEAD TO MORE AGGRESSIVE AND MILITARISTIC FOREIGN POLICY POSITIONS. If you haven’t met any leftists older than Hitchens was when he died who like their booze as much as he did, you probably haven’t met very many old leftists.

What all these explanations have in common is that they’re ways for the anti-war left to tell ourselves comforting stories about our own comparative virtue. If Hitchens’s wrong turn can be blamed on anti-Muslim bigotry or boozing or some mysterious Trotsky-derived mind virus, rather than a sincere attempt to apply his values to a messy world, we don’t have to worry that we (the good people!) could make similarly disastrous mistakes.

But it seems to me that more than a few good-hearted progressives are making a strikingly similar mistake regarding the war in Ukraine—a situation where the potential consequences of hawkish policy choices could make the damage brought about by the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions look trivial. Congress just voted Ukraine another $40 billion of aid—nearly seven times that country’s total military budget for 2021. Seth Moulton of the House Armed Services Committee casually told a Fox News interviewer, “We’re not just at war to support the Ukrainians. We’re fundamentally at war, although somewhat through a proxy, with Russia, and it’s important that we win.” Without using the p-word, Biden’s Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has suggested that the goal is not simply to evict Russia from Ukraine but to “weaken Russia to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things it has done in invading Ukraine.” Considering that American intelligence sources have been bragging to the New York Times about assassinating Russian generals and sinking Russian ships, the prospect of even further escalation as the conflict drags on should make your blood run cold. Maybe it can keep going for years without anything disastrous happening between the superpowers but the plain fact is that right at the moment Washington and Moscow are playing a game that puts the entire world in danger.

Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy advisor Matt Duss normally takes positions vastly better than those of the Washington, D.C. foreign policy “blob”. But since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he’s publicly equated calls for the United States to push peace talks with advocacy that “Ukraine surrenders.” More recently, he took a very Hitchensian potshot at leftists whose “anti-imperialism” leads them to “nod along with Henry Kissinger.” I’d never deny that Kissinger is a monster who’s been involved in war crimes and crimes against humanity from Chile to Cambodia. But surely from any anti-imperialist perspective, Kissinger’s realist willingness to pursue détente and de-escalation with Russia has always been the least bad thing about him. Or take Know Your Enemy—a left-wing podcast that I normally quite like. I’m a patron. But in an episode about a month after the invasion, the hosts casually accused the politically diverse signatories of this open letter (which called for “people of goodwill everywhere to join us in saying No to the illogic of escalation”) of secretly “want[ing] Putin to win.” After all, they reasoned, Biden hasn’t sent American troops or set up a No-Fly Zone, so what possible grounds could anyone have for concern about a march toward ever more direct conflict with Russia? To be fair to the Know Your Enemy guys, that episode happened before most of the developments recited above. But at this point, everyone should be concerned about escalation.

There’s a reason that neither Soviet military support for Vietnamese revolutionaries fighting the United States in the 1970s nor American military support for the mujahadeen fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s ever reached anything like this level. Post-Soviet Russia was perhaps too much of a mess in the 1990s for Yeltsin to be able to do much to support Russia’s close ally Serbia when the United States was bombing the shit out of Belgrade but even given vastly more favorable conditions he may have hesitated for the same reason both Khrushchev and Kennedy hesitated about further escalation in 1962.

World wars tend to start with regional wars involving smaller countries menaced by great powers (see Serbia 1914, Poland 1939). They become world wars when a second great power steps into the fray. The difference between the first two of those and a possible new one fought between Russia and the United States is, as John F. Kennedy put it during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “victory” in this war would be “ashes in our mouths.”

Their “Internationalism” and Ours

When my Hitchens book came out, I wasn’t surprised that some leftists didn’t like the fact that I have such a relatively sympathetic view of a famous turncoat. What did surprise me a little (though in retrospect it shouldn’t have) was that there are still so many unreconstructed Late Hitchens fanboys walking around who basically think he got everything right until the day he died. Some reviewers complained that I just took it as a given that Hitch’s support for America’s post 9/11 wars in the Middle East was catastrophically misguided. My usual line about this is that if you need to be persuaded on that point in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty-Two, I can’t help you.

A more substantive answer, though, would connect at least a very strong default anti-war position on any American intervention around the world with more basic socialist premises. In a recent article in Jacobin, I took a shot at doing exactly that, starting with a capsule history of the First, Second, and Third Internationals and then explaining why socialists traditionally took this position:

At its core, socialism is about empowering the working class — and not just the part of it that lives in the United States. Wars are one of the most extreme ways imaginable that ordinary people can be disempowered. Politicians declare the wars, their capitalist friends make a killing manufacturing the guns and bombs, and working-class people on both sides are literally killed.
Vladimir Putin and his oligarch friends, for example, are in no more physical danger than Dick Cheney and his friends at Halliburton were during the war in Iraq. It’s working-class Russian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians who are doing the dying now — and who will continue to die in even greater numbers if people like Hillary Clinton get their openly expressed wish and Ukraine becomes an Afghanistan-style quagmire for Putin.
…Even in a global thermonuclear conflict, if there are any escapes to be had, either to mineshafts (a la Dr Strangelove) or spaceships (a la Don’t Look Up), they’ll only be available to the wealthiest and best connected. As with all previous wars, the rest of us would be fucked.

To address the standard counter-example to the generalization “socialists should be anti-war,” it’s certainly plausible that the very real risk of global fascism justified American leftists relaxing their anti-war stance between 1939 and 1945—even that meant rooting for the victory of a racial apartheid state (the 1940s United States), Stalin’s Russia, and the British Empire. The stakes were that high. But that’s compatible with seeing an anti-war stance as an incredibly strong default and thinking it should take a lot more to override it than simply (correctly) pointing out that Saddam Hussein or Vladimir Putin or whoever the next enemy might be are (like Hitler!) evil tyrants who do evil things (gassing the Kurds, invading Ukraine). Late Hitchens, of course, was fond of World War II metaphors, which isn’t surprising. As his conservative brother Peter Hitchens once told me, given what Britain was like when they were growing up, the real religion they were raised in wasn’t so much Christianity as “we won the war.” Plenty of aging bohemian secularists end up returning to their childhood religion. Hitch’s hero George Orwell had argued during World War II that “pacifism is objectively pro-fascist.” This leads to a lot of interesting questions like, “Was Bertrand Russell objectively pro-Kaiser?” You can forgive Orwell for losing his head in the white heat of anti-fascist passion, and to his credit, he recanted this formulation in 1944, writing:

To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable. It is more immediately satisfying to shout that he is a fool or a scoundrel, or both, than to find out what he is really like.

If Orwell could recognize during World War II that many pacifists actually had honorable intentions and that he should engage with their arguments rather than dismissing them as supporters of the enemy, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask that pro-war progressives should make the same concession during wars where the case for overriding the anti-war default position is unfathomably weaker. In the sober light of hindsight I don’t think anyone really thinks that, if the Gulf War hadn’t happened, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait would have been the first step of a grandiose Hitlerian plan of world conquest that would end with the Iraqi National Guard marching through Paris. And it’s not much more plausible to think the Russian attack on Ukraine is the first step of such a plan. Russia’s size and nuclear arsenal makes it a significant player but it also has an economy the size of Italy. In what currently looks like the unlikely event of Russia marching on Kyiv and replacing Zelensky with a puppet ruler, Hillary Clinton would get her wish and Ukraine would become Russia’s Afghanistan. Note by the way that George W. Bush, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, never even got around to attacking either of two members other of the “Axis of Evil”—not even the one right smack in between Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, Russia getting away with cluster-bombing, invading and occupying a sovereign country is outrageous--albeit, not to put too fine a point on it, not exactly unprecedented. The question is whether it follows from the outrageousness of what Russia is doing that another major power becoming ever more directly involved in the war is a good thing. Should anti-imperialists have been rooting for Russia or China to do the equivalent when the United States invaded Iraq? It’s one thing to argue that citizens of a conquered nation have a right to fight to defend their country and quite another to support a second power wading in and making everything a thousand times more dangerous.

World War II analogies are cheap as dirt. I’m old enough to remember when Manuel Noriega spent five minutes being “Hitler” in the American media (followed by Saddam, followed by Slobodan Milosevic, followed by Saddam again, in a mind-numbing progression of Hitlers that now includes the gangster-ish but not really very Hitler-like Vladimir Putin). Hell, World War II analogies are invoked by supporters of both sides of the current conflict—hence Putin’s nonsense about “denazification.” The more sophisticated move made by pro-war leftists is to bring up the Spanish Civil War and to use the word “internationalist” a lot. But there are a good number of relevant differences between Americans and Brits volunteering for socialist militias in Republican Spain and Americans and Brits calling for one imperial power to become increasingly directly involved in a conflict with another whose potential stakes include a small but real chance of universal annihilation. And as I argued in that piece in Jacobin, what “internationalism” always meant in the socialist tradition is exactly the opposite of liberal interventionism.

There really are a handful of deeply unpleasant weirdos on the western left who are just about dumb enough to take “denazification” seriously and who somehow seem to have convinced themselves that Vladimir Putin (in the real world the leader of a deeply reactionary imperial power propped up by wealthy oligarchs and the Russian Orthodox Church) is the reincarnation of Vladimir Lenin. But 999 out of every 1000 leftists who are accused of being “Putin apologists” are no friendlier to Putin’s regime than, say, Rosa Luxemburg was to the regime of Tsar Nicholas. They support Russia’s anti-war movement just as Luxemburg saw the anti-war Bolsheviks as her comrades.

Some of her fellow German socialists who voted war credits to the Kaiser in the Reichstag sounded a whole lot like Late Hitchens as they talked about how triumphant German soldiers would be throwing open the doors to the Tsar’s prisons. Genuine internationalists like Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht disagreed not because they didn’t care about bringing freedom to Russia but because they thought that was the task of the Russian working class.

The Road to Late Hitchensism

To understand why Hitchens became Late Hitchens, it’s important to understand two threads in his evolution. First, the enemies the United States was facing in the 90s and 2000s were far less sympathetic than the ones it had faced in earlier conflicts. I don’t believe for a second that, if George W. Bush had been waging war against left-wing peasant revolutionaries as LBJ had in Vietnam or Reagan had in Nicaragua, Hitch ever could have brought himself to support that. But when he looked at enemies like Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein, he saw them as equivalent not to the forces the United States had been fighting in the 70s and 80s but to the forces, the United States had been propping up—like the death squads in Central America. Second, in the “End of History” atmosphere of the 90s, Hitchens lost his confidence that a renewed international socialist movement would ever come into being and he reasoned that, if the workers of the world were not going to topple petty despotisms around the world, the 82nd Airborne might be up to the job. The road to Late Hitchensism, in other words, is paved with good intentions. Just as it makes sense that Early Hitchens was becoming Late Hitchens at a time of deep defeats for the global left, I suspect that it’s not a coincidence that this new embrace of liberal militarism by much of the soft left is happening a couple of years after deep defeats for both American and British social democracy. And Vladimir Putin, who really is engaged in a disgusting war of imperial aggression, is the kind of villain it makes sense for people with left-wing values to get worked up about opposing.

Seeing genuinely horrifying things happen in the world and feeling powerless to stop them can be awful, and the desire to “do something” runs deep. But if we’ve learned anything from the last several decades of American foreign policy, when “something” means military adventurism, “doing nothing” is often vastly preferable.

Nor should we accept the idea that racing toward the precipice of World War III is the only thing that “something” can mean. Welcoming every Ukrainian refugee who wants to come is an excellent “something” for example. So is increasing humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. At the moment, in terms of saving a huge number of Ukrainian lives in the short term and saving the planet from something much worse if things continue to escalate, the most important “something” the United States could do would be to directly participate in peace negotiations to bring the horror to the fastest possible conclusion.

Of course, progressive Ukraine hawks will tell you that doing so would be terrible high-handed interference in Ukrainian prerogatives. Somehow, in these people’s minds, flooding the war zone with weapons to make sure the right side wins, assassinating the other side’s generals and the rest isn’t an unacceptable level of interference in other people’s conflicts—but promoting peace talks crosses the line. At that point in the argument, those leftists who’ve held on to their anti-war principles can simply roll their eyes and move on.

The fact is that escalating tensions between Russia and the United States put everyone in danger—a point best summarized by something that Early Hitchens wrote in 1983, as he looked back on the Cuban Missile Crisis twenty years earlier: “Like every one else of my generation, I can remember exactly where I was standing and what I was doing on the day that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy nearly killed me.”

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