Kevin Higgins reviewed a book on controversial critic Christopher Hitchens in Issue 52 (June 2013).
Richard Seymour, Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens (Verso)
In this full-frontal assault, the late Christopher Hitchens gets a dose of his own strong medicine. Richard Seymour presents the case against Hitchens to the world in forensic detail, in a manner that consciously parodies Hitchens’s own book-length diatribes against Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger. It is a trial in which the verdict was already decided upon before the first word of this eloquent prosecutorial tract was typed. Having convicted the late (and, for him, unlamented) Hitchens long before page one, Seymour closes with a quote from the nineteenth-century radical essayist Hazlitt: “He became ‘a living satire upon himself’.”
Seymour first used the long-form version of that quote against Hitchens when responding in The Guardian to the news that Hitchens had been posthumously honoured by the Orwell Prize:
Yet in his final years, Hitchens resembled nothing so much as the wretched apostate assayed by William Hazlitt—haunted by “the phantoms of his altered principles”, driven “to loathe and execrate them”, offering “all his thoughts, hopes, wishes, from youth upwards… at the shrine of matured servility”, becoming, at last, “one vile antithesis, a living and ignominious satire on himself”. And it is a sorry thing, but I suspect it is that Hitchens [my emphasis] who has been posthumously honoured…
In the course of these more than one hundred pages Seymour lands many heavy punches on Hitchens’s corpse. There’s the fact that he couldn’t be bothered to vote Labour in the 1979 general election, his apparent infatuation with (the now also late) Margaret Thatcher, his support of the Falklands war, his ambivalence about the British Empire and, of course, Iraq. High crimes and misdemeanours, to be sure. Before you lop someone’s head off, though, even if that head belongs to a dead man as it does in this case, it’s important to know exactly who is doing the accusing.
Seymour correctly points out that Hitchens had a tendency to avoid difficult issues, particularly in his best-selling memoir Hitch-22. For example, in 1998 Hitchens swore in an affidavit for the House of Representatives impeachment trial of Bill Clinton that his (then) friend Sidney Blumenthal had told Hitchens that Monica Lewinsky was “a stalker”, i.e. a woman obsessed with imposing her affections on Clinton’s hapless willy. Blumenthal telling Hitchens this lie was part of a Clinton administration attempt to spin the story against the woman on whose dress the President memorably ejaculated. It is possible that Blumenthal, who was given the job of spinning this story to journalists he believed would be sympathetic, did not know that it was a lie. In his own testimony to the committee, Blumenthal denied that he had ever smeared Lewinsky’s character in that way. He was not happy, to say the least of it, when Hitchens told the Republican-controlled congressional committee the truth. This wound to their friendship never healed. No surprise there. It is a little odd, though, that Blumenthal’s name appears not even once in Hitchens’s 424-page memoir. Surely there must have been something to say about this friendship that was sacrificed on the altar of a committee chaired by Representative Henry Hyde—a man who had previously argued that, though Oliver North may have lied to Congress, his cause was a noble one: fighting communism, which made all the lying and other skullduggery OK, if not even slightly heroic.
Such interpersonal issues aside, Hitchens was upfront about his previous political associations. In the aforementioned memoir he goes into some detail about his recruitment to and membership of “a small, but growing post-Trotskyist, Luxemburgist sect”. Hitchens was an active member of said small, but growing sect while a student at Oxford University and for some years after. Until earlier this year Richard Seymour was also a long-standing member of the aforementioned sect. It is true, certainly, that anyone who has followed Seymour’s blog Lenin’s Tomb could not but be aware of his political affiliation. But it would be possible for a newcomer to read his indictment of Hitchens from beginning to end and not be exactly clear about that.
A number of the leaders of this political tendency—including one who was apparently recruited to the group by Hitchens—are presented as witnesses for the prosecution in the chapter ‘Christopher Hitchens in Theory And Practice’. Ironically, Seymour has since fallen out with said Hitchens recruit because of a serious scandal which saw a leading member of the group accused of raping a female comrade. The leadership have been accused of covering the issue up, and Seymour has bravely taken to an oppositional barricade. One result of this has been that he, and many of his co-oppositionists, have found themselves outside the fold.
But when Seymour wrote this book, he was still a true believing member, and happy to quote as reliable witnesses people whose word he clearly, in the light of recent catastrophes, no longer accepts as gospel. The testimony of a serving member of a far left group against someone who has departed the fold is, quite simply, never to be believed. Particularly when it is based in any part on warmed-over anecdotes by old-timers who, dammit, always suspected that deep down he/she was an incurable bourgeois hound from the get-go. It is not enough to say that the ex-member is no good now: it must be proved that he/she was always dodgy. In such a campaign of reputational revision, no smear is inadmissible. The converse is also the case, as Seymour would now no doubt have to agree: if you are a serving leadership loyalist in such a group—and the one in which Hitchens and Seymour served their time is not at all unique in this regard—then even if you happen to have dead children buried beneath a conservatory which you are forever extending when you’re not out selling papers or attending branch meetings, this will not be spoken of. Until you resign your membership. I exaggerate… perhaps.
Once the reader knows that the Richard Seymour who wrote this book is several rungs below the jilted ex-husband on the reliability as a witness league table, you can give his case against Hitchens its proper weight. Hitchens was someone who tended to lurch about the place at speed politically, and make things up as he went along. He was wrong about many issues, and when he was wrong, he was very, very wrong. For example, his attempt to excuse the Bush administration for its monstrous mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans was, well, shite talk pure and simple.
Hitchens was a man drawn to the grand idea—a hangover from his days in that “small, but growing post-Trotskyist, Luxemburgist sect”, no doubt—and when reality got in his way, the deeper the hole he was in, the more furiously he dug. His polemics against religion, in God is not Great and elsewhere, leaned too heavily on only part of Marx’s famous quote about religion being “the opium of the people”. The rest of it says that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions.” In other words, as long as there are oppressed creatures in a heartless world, then many of those oppressed creatures—in the absence of a better offer—will continue to imbibe the religious opium. This is not to say that such use of opium a good thing, or that it shouldn’t be argued against. But you’re not going to wean people off such supernatural hopes by mere argument alone.
Seymour appears to dismiss Hitchens’s famous polemic against Mother Teresa on the grounds that she was an easy target. In what way? In 1995, the year Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in theory and practice was published, the book’s subject was not only still alive but the most successful religious conwoman in the world. She had been a friend of the Haitian dictator Baby Doc Duvalier and of the deranged Albanian Stalinist leader Enver Hoxha. She had accepted financial support from the convicted Savings and Loans fraudster Charles Keating. She was lauded for her work with the poor in Calcutta, though this was to an overwhelming extent illusory. She campaigned not only against abortion but also against all forms of family planning in, of all countries, India. That November she stopped off in Dublin to join the call for a No vote in our divorce referendum. Mother Teresa was an ultra-reactionary pest whom the world showered with prizes, including the Nobel Peace Prize, though she never even claimed to do anything to promote peace. Her speech at the award ceremony in Stockholm in 1979 was all about the evils of abortion. I’m currently compiling the shortest list in history: Irish liberals and lefties who took Mother Teresa to task. So far, there are no names on it. Not even my own. Hitchens’s smashing of the icon that was Mother Teresa is a book which should be force-fed to everyone who thinks that Michael D Higgins is very brave in the way he’s speaking out right now, or that Mary Robinson is an important ethical voice for our time.
George Galloway was another of Hitchens’s victims. His debate with Galloway about the Iraq war at Baruch University, New York in 2005 was a classic heavyweight contest in which no stone was left unthrown. Unlike Mother Teresa, Galloway answered back. In an interview broadcast after Hitchens’s death, Galloway gloated that now Hitchens knows that God is indeed great. It should have been absolutely possible to both oppose the Iraq war and to say that George Galloway is an egomaniacal charlatan with a serious addiction to French-kissing the buttocks of any sordid little tyrant who’ll let him. Yet I can only think of one person on the entire British left who consistently said that it was so: Peter Tatchell, the legendary gay rights campaigner who also very actively opposed the Iraq war. The vast majority have been not at all keen to examine the phenomenon that is Ungorgeous George, and resented Hitchens for his attacks on their hero.
Yes, most will admit, Galloway is flawed, but he’s on the right side. The thing is, though, he’s not. He presents a programme on the Iranian regime’s propaganda station Press TV, opposes a woman’s right to choose, and openly supported the Iranian police and militia when they shot dead a young Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, during their crackdown on protests against the rigged presidential election in 2009. In 2010 Galloway described Bashar Assad’s Syria as “the last castle of Arab dignity”. It depends what one’s definition of dignity is, of course. Ireland’s recent discussion about abortion has been bad, but it could have been worse. As well as having to suffer Breda O’Brien and Caroline Simons, just imagine what it would have been like if Mother Teresa was still alive and George Galloway lived in Galway. For such small mercies are we truly grateful. Seymour doesn’t choose to discuss Hitchens’s great debate with Galloway. No doubt it didn’t suit his grand anti-hegemonic political scheme.
Unhitched is well written, if a little verbose in places. Indeed, Seymour’s writing style calls to mind that of Hitchens himself. To read this book is to look at Christopher Hitchens through the looking glass: one cannot help wonder where on the political spectrum its relatively youthful author will end up? So Seymour is a good writer and possesses no small amount of courage. He has that in common with his subject. But to paraphrase 1970s crooner Dean Friedman, he’s not as smart as he’d like to think he is. Certainly, he convicts Hitchens of not having a coherent political alternative to those on the left whom he savaged. But Hitchens was never a writer of manifestos: he was a smasher of sacred statues, statues which for the most part absolutely deserved the smashing he gave them. And his words will live after him.
For example, the Catholic hierarchy has implied that politicians who vote for the government’s X Case legislation may face excommunication. It reminded me of one point Hitchens made in one of his many debates about religion:
Like many Nazi leaders, Josef Goebbels started off as a practising Catholic and was the only one to be excommunicated—not because of his Nazi crimes but because he married a woman who was not only a Protestant but divorced. So, we do have standards, then!
Wouldn’t it be delicious to see some whispery-voiced cleric reminded of this fact during the Irish abortion debate? A good boy like Fintan O’Toole would never even think of saying such a thing. Michael D Higgins might say it in private, at a fundraising dinner party at which known Trotskyists were present. Hitchens, on the other hand, would say that and worse to the whole listening world. And for that, if nothing else, we must love him.