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Excerpt: “How Hitchens Can Save the Left”

When he saw his old left-wing comrades busily hatching excuses for neutrality as Slobodan Milošević waged war on Bosnia, he realized that much of the Left was either indifferent about this confrontation or on the wrong side.”

Editor’s note: This excerpt comes from Matt Johnson’s book How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment, which was released with Pitchstone Publishing in February of this year. 

In a 1944 letter to Noel Willmett, George Orwell worried that totalitarianism would spread throughout the world—a terrifying idea that would form the basis of a novel he was beginning to write. Orwell decried the “horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies” of these leaders. But he expressed optimism in response to Willmett’s observation that the United States and the United Kingdom had not succumbed to the totalitarian impulse: “As to the comparative immunity of Britain and the USA,” Orwell wrote, “Whatever the pacifists etc. may say, we have not gone totalitarian yet and this is a very hopeful symptom.”

Despite Orwell’s suspicion that something like the world he would create in 1984 was actually in formation, as well as his concern over what he described as the “decay of democracy,” he would not have written the book if he believed that outcome was inevitable. Although he was an unyielding critic of British imperialism and American cultural and political influence, he also acknowledged that Western democracy should be defended and improved: “I think, and have thought ever since the war began, in 1936 or thereabouts, that our cause is the better, but we have to keep on making it the better, which involves constant criticism.”

At the end of the Cold War, the Anglo-American journalist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens recalled a “common feeling that the values of pluralism and democracy were worth having for their own sake.” The totalitarian idea, it seemed, had collapsed along with the Berlin Wall. In a 1994 essay about his departure from the Socialist Workers Party in the mid-1970s, Hitchens recalled a conversation he had with the Polish dissident Jacek Kuroń when the Iron Curtain was still drawn over Eastern Europe: “He told me that he’d ceased to bother with Trotskyist disputation, and now felt that the real confrontation was between pluralism and state absolutism. However simplistically phrased, this became the slogan of the most thorough-going revolution we ever did live to see.”

It would not be long before Hitchens stopped using words like “simplistic” to describe the confrontation between pluralism and absolutism—the central confrontation of his political life after the Cold War. When he saw his old left-wing comrades busily hatching excuses for neutrality as Slobodan Milošević waged war on Bosnia, he realized that much of the Left was either indifferent about this confrontation or on the wrong side. And he recognized that the dissidents like Kuroń who had made the “simple” demand for democracy in defiance of Soviet totalitarianism—rather than wasting time with “Trotskyist disputation” and other endless internecine squabbles—were vindicated in 1989. 

Orwell’s terror at the idea of centuries of static and oppressive tension between a few totalitarian superstates was misplaced, and while his predictions about a Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union were prescient, he probably would have been surprised to discover that communism would collapse all on its own. Although the socialist United States of Europe which Orwell hoped for failed to materialize, consider how shocking it would be for a man who fought in the Spanish Civil War and whose London apartment was destroyed by a German rocket to learn that Berlin would become the anchor of a 27-state European Union—a role made all the more significant by the United Kingdom’s departure from that union.

Hitchens often observed that figures such as Milošević and Saddam Hussein were direct descendants of the great totalitarians of the 20th century. He described Milošević’s revanchist campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia as the return of fascism to Europe. He observed that the “founders and inspirers of the Baath Party…modeled themselves basically on European fascism.” (For an incisive analysis of this historical phenomenon, see Paul Berman’s 2003 book Terror and Liberalism. For an examination of the influence of Nazi propaganda elsewhere in the Middle East, see his 2010 book The Flight of the Intellectuals.) Of course these despots did not pose the same civilizational threat as Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin, but they still immiserated and destroyed the lives of millions of people. 

After the Cold War, Hitchens increasingly embraced what he described as the “anti-totalitarian left.” He regarded a status quo in which a European country could be subjected to genocidal violence for years with no significant opposition from Western powers as intolerable. He did not just view the removal of the Taliban as justice for the September 11 attacks. He further welcomed the end of the most retrograde and cruel theocracy on earth, and he would be appalled at the Taliban’s triumphant return to power after the United States abandoned Afghanistan in 2021. He believed a reckoning with Saddam Hussein was inevitable, and he wanted to see Iraq liberated from a “psychopathic crime family.” He argued that the international community had a responsibility to stop the genocide in Darfur and believed the United States and its allies should do everything possible to bring the dictatorships in Libya and Syria to an end. 

Hitchens opposed nationalism and authoritarianism in the United States and Europe for the same reason he supported these interventions around the world: He believed in democracy and universal human rights. Like Orwell, he believed our cause—the liberal democratic cause—is the better one. In his 2007 biography of Thomas Paine, Hitchens observes that his subject regarded the United States as an “actual and concrete achievement; not an imaginary Utopia but a home for liberty and the conscious first stage of a world revolution.” 

After abandoning international socialism, Hitchens argued that the true revolutionary forces in the world are the millions of people—from Eastern Europe to Tehran, Kabul, Hong Kong, Moscow, and Yangon—who demand the basic rights that are granted at birth in liberal democracies. Hitchens frequently observed that there are many countries that would benefit from the adoption of a set of rights and rules resembling the Constitution of the United States. He still believed in the United States’ revolutionary purpose 230 years after Paine made the case for independence and representative government.

While these ideas were radical for their time, the endurance of the American Revolution is a testament to its practicality and universality. Even the title of Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense, captures this essential element of his work: He was naturally and intentionally egalitarian, and his argument was meant to be understood as widely as possible. The intelligibility of Paine’s case rested on the obvious fact that what he described as the “two ancient tyrannies” of monarchy and aristocracy were just that: tyrannies. Even in Paine’s time, most people could see that democracy was the only real bulwark against authoritarianism—a fact that is no less true today.

Matt Johnson is a writer whose work has been published in The Bulwark, Quillette, Haaretz, American Purpose, The Daily Beast, and many other outlets. He is the author of How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment.

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