Reflections on the Hitch’s “conservatism”
Our fearless leader has a worthwhile piece on the Hitch. However, soulless nitpicker that I am, I wanted to home in on a line that I’ve been seeing around a bit that needs some dealing with.
Hitchens became a vocal anti-empire type socialist by his teens and through college largely over the war in Vietnam and other issues. I have much to object to in that, but he disavowed the whole thing by 2001. I can’t claim I know the truest reasons for his changing outlook, but it happens that he became politically conservative and capitalist at precisely the apparent time and speed he became wealthy by way of criticizing imperialist capitalistic fatcats like Reagan and George HW Bush. It strikes me as highly self-interested.
Hitchens supported Bush II’s Gulf War and even defended the “War on Terror” and WMD claims. Such claims were seen as lies and nonsense by much duller men, but Hitchens defended them as late as 2007. That’s shameful both for the genuflecting to republicans and for being so obviously wrong.
Aiyaiyai… Okay, let me take it from the top. First of all, did Christopher Hitchens ever disavow his role in opposing the Vietnam war? He. Didn’t. Since the subject of Iraq will be dealt with, let’s just note that the Hitch castigated anyone who was going to draw any sort of comparison between Iraq and Vietnam. I defy anyone to find me a quote where the Hitch said that he thought, in retrospect, the Vietnam war was a good idea. Let’s please stick to the facts.
The meat of this is that the Hitch became conservative and more pro-capitalist. Those aren’t the same thing at all, and it is significant that that distinction isn’t being observed. What I will argue in this post is that the Hitch never became conservative, if those words are to have any real meaning, and that his positions are a logical development of the positions he held his entire life.
To begin with, let’s start with some definitions. Conservative:
disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.
By way of antonym, consider the term radical:
of or going to the root or origin; fundamental: a radical difference [...] thoroughgoing or extreme, especially as regards change from accepted or traditional forms: a radical change in the policy of a company (…)
favoring drastic political, economic, or social reforms
Is war radical or conservative?
Now what evidence is advanced that Hitchens became conservative? Ah, yes, “Bush II’s Gulf War”. George W Bush, for no reason anyone has been able to discover, all on his own, launched the second Gulf war… I confess that this sort of a formulation strikes me as more than a little deceptive. The war didn’t just happen for anyone’s jollies – it had a definite aim, the removal of Saddam Hussein. So, we can rewrite the statement a little more honestly: “Hitchens was a conservative because he supported the removal of Saddam Hussein”.
That already looks less plausible as an accusation. However, we can go further. Hitchens didn’t merely want Saddam gone, he wanted to see the US remove all Ba’athism and install a federal democratic system in Iraq. So we can rewrite this further:
“Hitchens was a conservative because he supported the removal of the Saddam Hussein Ba’ath tyranny and wanted to install a federal democracy in Iraq.”
Okay, now why did he support this? After all he did, and is on record, as criticizing the first gulf war. Why did he change his mind? Again, we don’t need to guess – he told us in so many words why. At the end of the fist gulf war, he was driving around Kurdistan with some Kurdish socialists who had a picture of George H.W. Bush in their window. In response to his request to take it down, they explained that they couldn’t, because without Bush I they and their entire families would be dead. As he commented, “I didn’t have a clever, moveon-dot-org response to that.” The Hitch long friendship and solidarity with the Kurds is a matter of open record.
So, let’s look at that again:
“Hitchens was a conservative because he supported the removal of the Saddam Hussein Ba’ath tyranny and wanted to install a federal democracy in Iraq, a position he was brought to through his friendship with Kurdish socialists and trade unionists.”
The accusation, however, goes on, that Hitchens “ even defended the “War on Terror” and WMD claims”.
There are many people who seem to believe that the claim that Saddam Hussein was in constant pursuit of WMDs is solely and alone the product of the nefarious Bush II, who somehow manages to be both a moron and capable of deceiving the planet.
To say that this claim doesn’t hold water barely begins to cover it. As my sometime comrade Bill Whittle says, unfortunately Al Gore in his unbridled enthusiasm went and invented the internet, so we can now see who said what when. Please take some time reading that. My personal favorite example is that when Clinton destroyed the only pharmaceutical plant of the Sudan in order to escape impeachment, the claim of his administration was that in the Sudan, Osama bin Laden owned a factory making chemical weapons for… (wait for it)… Saddam Hussein. It was also under Clinton that the Iraq Liberation act was passed with zero dissenting voices.
That said, the Hitch was, quite rightly, deeply suspicious of the US gov’t's claims, especially anything that came out of the Clinton administration (to my mind, the worst US admin since Carter, and possibly since Nixon). He based his view that Saddam simply couldn’t be trusted when it came to WMDs on people like Rolf Ekeus, the Swedish diplomat and socialist and international expert on these matters. For example, on the matter of Saddam Hussein trying to get yellowcake uranium ore from Niger, the Hitch writes:
Rolf Ekeus came round to my apartment one day and showed me the name of the Iraqi diplomat who had visited the little West African country of Niger: a statelet famous only for its production of yellowcake uranium. The name was Wissam Zahawi. He was the brother of my louche gay part-Kurdish friend, the by-now late Mazen. He was also, or had been at the time of his trip to Niger, Saddam Hussein’s ambassador to the Vatican. I expressed incomprehension. What was an envoy to the Holy See doing in Niger? Obviously he was not taking a vacation. Rolf then explained two things to me. The first was that Wissam Zahawi had, when Rolf was at the United Nations, been one of Saddam Hussein’s chief envoys for discussions on nuclear matters (this at a time when the Iraqis had functioning reactors). The second was that, during the period of sanctions that followed the Kuwait war, no Western European country had full diplomatic relations with Baghdad. The Vatican was the sole exception, so it was sent a very senior Iraqi envoy to act as a listening post. And this man, a specialist in nuclear matters, had made a discreet side trip to Niger. This was to suggest exactly what most right-thinking people were convinced was not the case: namely that British intelligence was on to something when it said that Saddam had not ceased seeking nuclear materials in Africa.
I published a few columns on this, drawing at one point an angry email from Ambassador Zahawi that very satisfyingly blustered and bluffed on what he’d really been up to. I also received—this is what sometimes makes journalism worthwhile—a letter from a BBC correspondent named Gordon Correa who had been writing a book about A.Q. Khan. This was the Pakistani proprietor of the nuclear black market that had supplied fissile material to Libya, North Korea, very probably to Syria, and was open for business with any member of the ‘rogue states’ club. (Saddam’s people, we already knew for sure, had been meeting North Korean missile salesmen in Damascus until just before the invasion, when Kim Jong Il’s mercenary bargainers took fright and went home.) It turned out, said the highly interested Mr. Correa, that his man Khan had also been in Niger, and at about the same time that Zahawi had. The likelihood of the senior Iraqi diplomat in Europe and the senior Pakistani nuclear black-marketeer both choosing an off-season holiday in chic little uranium-rich Niger… well, you have to admit that it makes an affecting picture. But you must be ready to credit something as ridiculous as that if your touching belief is that Saddam Hussein was already ‘contained,’ and that Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair were acting on panic reports, fabricated in turn by self-interested provocateurs.
He also had a lot to say about the ridiculous Plamegate nonsense. I’ll summarize: anyone who seriously thought that there was nothing to be noted in the presence of Iraq’s top nuclear negotiator in Niger while A.Q. Khan was also there is not to be taken seriously. That goes double for the CIA (for the record, since we’re enumerating the Hitch’s positions he, like myself, had a longstanding loathing and distrust of the CIA and never changed that position from his youth. That US lefties started taking the word of the CIA as gospel is something for further dissection at some other time…).
So, we can rephrase still further:
“Hitchens was a conservative because he supported the removal of the Saddam Hussein Ba’ath tyranny and wanted to install a federal democracy in Iraq, a position he was brought to through his friendship with Kurdish socialists and trade unionists, and believed the WMD claims in part because of what he was told by a senior weapons inspector with a reputation for incorruptibility, who was a Swedish socialist of long standing.”
To this we can add all sorts of other stuff - the chemical, and nuclear, weapons factory found dismantled and shipped away in Iraq, the nuclear centrifuge in Mahdi Obeidi’s garden, the attempt to buy weapons off the shelf from North Korea, etc. etc.
I could go on like this, and don’t think that I won’t, but I trust my point is made with some force here. To just say, “Oh, I have just no idea why the Hitch would take such positions…” is simply no credible. He told us, repeatedly, over dozens of debates and who knows how many articles why he took that position.
Now, is this position in any sense of the word, conservative?
Well, no. The desire to cast down an unjust status quo and build something new in its place is not conservative by any standard. In actual fact, as people must remember, it was the anti-war left that said that the war would destabilize the region (an explicitly status quo position, note this), and was joined in this by genuine conservatives like Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft, the aforementioned CIA, Pat Buchanan… It was, in fact, no different from the position taken by those who were against the fall of Apartheid because they feared that what followed might be worse.
In a debate with Christopher Hitchens, that Eric Alterman, who is so much of an embodiment of the US left that he has even written a book Why We’re Liberals, let the reality slip. I quote from memory:
“The liberal party has been chastened by its defeats and become a modest, pragmatic, conservative party. While the party you’ve joined, Christopher, is a radical, revolutionary party.”
Emphasis mine. To which the Hitch responded:
“You accused me of being a revolutionary – not the worst accusation I have had hurled at me.”
Radicals for capitalism
Okay, so the Hitch was in favor of getting rid of Saddam because of things like solidarity, internationalism, the export of revolution and other, highly unconservative principles. Fine. But surely his later abandonment of socialism and defense of capitalism is a proof that he became a, gasp, conservative?
Well, that would have come as a surprise to such right wing maniacs as, er, Karl Marx. The position the Hitch took was that he was still a Marxist even if no longer a socialist. Now, here’s Marxism 101: socialism was an idea long before Marx. What he brought was new was the argument that it could only occur when the time was right – that there was a historical process of development and that the second highest stage was capitalism. Marx championed capitalism as producing abundance on a scale undreamt by the maddest Roman emperor, and liberated incalculable numbers from poverty. However, Marx claimed that capitalism had its own “internal contradictions” and would ultimately be superseded by communism.
Now the crucial thing about a truly Marxist analysis is his attack on what he called “traumerei”, the idle fantasizing of socialists. He held that pursuing socialism when the time and conditions were not right was not merely foolish but wicked, as it squandered valuable resources. So his position was that the honest and dedicated socialist should always champion the highest form of capitalism and capitalism’s expansion, until the time was right for socialism to take over. Hence Marx’s defense of the capitalist Union against the feudal Confederacy. Hence also his defense of the capitalist British Empire in India.
Note, incidentally, that these positions make perfect sense in combination with the above discussion of Iraq.
The Hitch simply came to conclusion that there was no “higher state” above capitalism. This was it, the final development, and the best that could be hoped for. As a good Marxist, he decided to forgo traumerei in favor of rooting out what was left of feudalism and religion.
So much for his “conservatism”.
There is a basic principle of argumentation that, if you are going to argue against a position, you should be able to state it so clearly that the opponent would accept and recognize it. If you have to start hiding what someone else says in order to dismiss it, that is a good sign that your own arguments are flawed. In this light, the claim “I don’t know why Hitchens took these positions” is particularly ludicrous. Even his worst enemy wouldn’t accuse the man of being shy about saying what he thought.
A personal aside: unlike Hitchens and some of his comrades like Nick Cohen, I have no problems with the left becoming a conservative, status quo force, because conservatives always lose. The world changes, and you have to be active and present in it to win. As a proud member of the pro-capitalist Right, I’m perfectly happy for the Hitch to be cast our from the left, because there’s only one real home for his legacy and those of many like him.