Further Left

R.W. Johnson

  • Prepared for the worst: Selected Essays and Minority Reports by Christopher Hitchens
    Hogarth, 357 pp, £9.99, July 1990, ISBN 0 7012 0903 8
  • Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies by Christopher Hitchens
    Chatto, 398 pp, £18.00, July 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3361 9

Many years ago it was the habit of the PPE tutors in Magdalen College, Oxford to hold a discussion group for their undergraduates. At one such meeting we were somewhat disconcerted to find we had been gatecrashed by an extremely loud and talkative outsider of Marxist bent who laid down the law about everything, referred to the dons as ‘comrade’ – he did not know my name, so I was ‘the red-headed comrade’ – and rather capsized the whole evening. Not long after, the discussion group was disbanded. The gatecrasher’s name, we learnt, was Christopher Hitchens, and he apparently did this sort of thing rather often, being famous for a sort of pyrotechnic brashness. Looking back, one realises that these were entirely apposite qualities for the successful journalist, which is very much what Hitchens has become.

Both these books are essentially the product of his residence in Washington, a transplantation which has served him very well and not merely because brashness is a necessary virtue there. He writes well, is extremely witty, and while he may or may not still be a Marxist, he certainly enjoys an opinionatedly radical cutting-edge quite sufficient to place him apart from the general run of American journalism. Moreover, he goads Americans by a scathing de haut en bas contempt for their vulgarity and at the same time titillates them with an equal scorn for the conventional symbolism of Anglo-culture, dismissing Princess Di as a bimbo, mocking the Rhodes Scholarship with Balliol disdain and generally slaughtering sacred cows like a pocket Rambo let loose with a gun in the cow-shed. For readers of the Nation, and more particularly for the American televiewers before whom Hitchens frequently performs, this has proved a rich and entertaining diet.

There is no doubt that he possesses a considerable talent. But there is also a question of context. In some ways, American newspapermen are the world leaders in their field: they have pioneered news magazines, photo news, muck-raking, investigative reporting and most of the other great innovations of 20th-century journalism. But while in their way the New York Times and the Washington Post are magnificent, if lonely achievements, they are also prone to self-importance and full of acres of leaden prose – the deliberately dull reportage of ethical journalism. In that context someone like Hitchens shines forth like a naughty deed on a grey day.

Hitchens appears to best advantage in Prepared for the worst, a collection of his journalism first published last year and mainly drawn from the Nation, the Spectator and the New Statesman. The pieces stand up well. They are often witty, invariably acute and it is a pleasure to watch Hitchens slash merrily away at figures who are conventionally exempt from tough criticism. Barbara Tuchman, ‘a contented liberal’, is assailed for her appalling prose and the crass obviousness of many of her judgments and then pityingly dismissed as ‘the doyenne of the middlebrow American talk circuit’. He is even tougher on the Kennedy caravan of intellectuals, who hyped up their man to such a degree that it is hard for them now to explain that JFK was also a cheat, who faked authorship of his books and lied over Cuba and his war record, and a tireless philanderer. This discrepancy is due, he writes, to the ‘myths and fabrications which have been popularised by courtiers and toadies like Arthur Schlesinger’, whom he refers to as ‘a sycophant’. He is similarly tough with Stanley Hoffman for being too respectful of Henry Kissinger.

Hitchens is at his best when on the attack. He can’t stand Cyril Connolly, whom he sees as a precious old reactionary: ‘another dose of the familiar compound ... some rackety travelling, a tincture of furtive sex (with much sniggering about lesbians), and the business of voyaging long distances the better to fret about some spoiled darling left behind in the Home Counties’. But his most furious barbs are reserved for Norman Podhoretz, the reactionary editor of Commentary. Hitchens seems almost obsessed by him, returning to the attack over and over again. It is a curious fact that Podhoretz, an immodest man who has much about which to be modest, so got under the skin of intellectuals in the Eighties. He was definitively despatched by Gore Vidal some long while ago. Conor Cruise O’Brien then took his furious turn at the coconut shy. And here is Hitchens, lobbing adjectives like grenades in the same cause. It’s all too much. One can’t easily imagine anyone wasting so much ink and anger over, say, Bernard Levin – Britain’s answer to Podhoretz, roughly speaking.

What it boils down to is that Hitchens is only really at home when attacking from the left and that he tends to go for easy targets. The Reagan Administration, awash with corruption, ignoramuses and its own special brand of sleazy, high-tech buffoonery, was, in that sense, a single huge easy target and Hitchens has endless, well-deserved fun at its expense. But the limitations of his approach begin to appear even there. It is fair enough to abuse Henry Kissinger for lying, sycophancy and malpractice, but is Hitchens right to dismiss him as ‘a second-rate academic’? It may hurt to admit that people one loathes sometimes have high ability, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Similarly, Hitchens is infuriated by the turn to the right effected by Conor Cruise O’Brien in latter years and explains it by claiming that O’Brien ‘had learned to look at the world from the perspective of the foundation seminar, the bullet-proof limousine and the counter-insurgency technician’. This is good knockabout stuff, but is it really an adequate explanation of the tortured complexity of O’Brien’s development? I would be amazed if anything about him was that simple. Hitchens ends by darkly urging O’Brien to ponder his own verdict on Burke: ‘for him the forces of revolution and the counter-revolution exist not only in the world at large but also within himself.’ To Hitchens it is obviously game, set and match if O’Brien can be accused of carrying the counter-revolution within him. He would do well himself ‘to ponder’, as he likes to put it, the richness and complexity of a mind and sympathy which stretches to comprehend both the revolution and its opposite, just as Shakespeare’s did in Coriolanus.

These limitations become more apparent when Hitchens writes about the Left. He tears into Michael Foot for his ‘treacly exaggerations’, his awful sentimentality, his Beaverbrook-worship and his ‘glutinous style’. Fine. But the fact that his general angle of attack on Foot is from the left, and his judgment that Foot ‘has never been otherwise than a poseur’, suggest that Foot has never really been a man of the Left at all. But that is to miss the important point that Foot has indeed represented a particular sort of Left in Britain, one which needs to be understood amidst all its warts and imperfections.

Similarly, writing about Djilas, he slots in a throwaway dismissal of Eurocommunism: ‘presented as a bland and sophisticated business. There is the Gucci socialism of Enrico Berlinguer or the petit commerçant compromise of Georges Marchais, both redolent of the main chance.’ Now the use of the word ‘Gucci’ is a bad American journalistic habit, a brand name used as a too easy sneer word and thus a rather cheap way of dismissing someone. Only too frequently, it is used by smart set media folk hardly backward in their own sense of fashion and style. Even more remarkable is the attempt to blacken Marchais with the epithet petit commerçant, a grotesque and surely deliberate misunderstanding of the most Stalinist Communist left in the West. If even Marchais isn’t sufficiently hard-line and ouvrieriste for Hitchens, he’s left with very little choice outside Albania and China. It’s impossible to believe that Hitchens means us to think that. But if Hitchens isn’t really way to the left of Marchais, why effect a critique from that angle except as a matter of radical chic? Gucci journalism?

In two cases Hitchens’s critical judgment seems virtually to desert him. His essay on the Korean Opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung, is a moving and passionate piece, full of interest and a notable historical document in its own right – for Hitchens had the fine idea of travelling with Kim on his return to South Korea. But we don’t get any impression of the toughly egocentric Kim who refused all attempts to unite the Opposition and thus guaranteed the continuance of right-wing rule in the ROK.

There is also an extremely long exoneration of Noam Chomsky, unjustly pilloried, Hitchens feels, for having written a preface to a book by Robert Faurisson. Faurisson is one of the nest of ‘revisionist’ historians to be found at the University of Lyon (which Hitchens insists on misspelling as Lyons) who believe that the Holocaust was a hoax got up to blacken Hitler’s good name. Not surprisingly, Faurisson and his friends are deeply unpopular, and Chomsky merely wrote in support of his right to publish his views like anyone else. Hitchens does a good job of defending Chomsky as a principled and unjustly maligned hero of the Left – he’s particularly good on the way a book can simply be blacked out in the US by all review editors having simultaneous attacks of amnesia – but the key point of the Faurisson incident was that Chomsky was contributing a preface to a book he had never read. Hitchens agrees that this was somewhat rash of his hero, but he might truthfully have added that Chomsky has been far too willing to sign almost anything put in front of him.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest lacuna among these pieces is any treatment of the greatest phenomenon of the American Left in recent years, the Jesse Jackson show. This is a pity: Jackson’s shameless opportunism, the dark facts of his career in Chicago, his heroic womanising, his refusal to run for any office which might mean taking responsibility for anything, and the terrible damage he has done to his own side – all merit the sort of slashing treatment Hitchens would be very good at. But no: this difficult but worthwhile subject is steadily ignored. The nearest we get to it is an attack on Jackson’s sometime adviser, the black anti-semite, Louis Farrakhan: but even here the crucial point is apparently that Farrakhan uses ‘the precise language employed by the Liberty Lobby, the Klan and the right-wing patriots who surfaced at the time of the oil embargo’. Now, noxious racist as he undoubtedly is, Farrakhan belongs somewhere on what passes for the far left in the US. To dismiss him by finding a point where his rhetoric coincides with that of the far Right is clever, even cute, but there is a sort of evasion here.

Hitchens’s biting critiques of his easy targets would carry more weight if he was willing to tackle the hard (for him) targets as well. Take Farrakhan’s anti-semitism. It is no good just treating this as a simple badge of evil. The hard knot of feeling that Farrakhan builds on is the widespread black perception that Jews assumed many of the leadership positions in the civil rights movement of the Sixties, and that they then used these positions to steer the movement towards the achievement of individual civil rights (which suited Jews). Blacks who look at the parlous state of the black community today are wont to believe that this was a wrong direction, that only collective and communal solutions would have levered blacks out of their misery, and that all that irrecoverable momentum was, in a sense, wasted. The sense that, in this and other ways, Jews have somehow escaped from their victim status at the expense of blacks, however unfair such a notion may be, is diffusely felt. The extent to which this perception is justified, and the extent to which it draws strength from other ghetto roots, would make a difficult but important study. Meanwhile it does more to explain Farrakhan than any amount of damning comparison with the Klan.

Of Blood, Class and Nostalgia Hitchens says it is ‘neither a narrative history, nor a cultural survey, nor a full-dress political analysis’. Coming straight to this book from Prepared for the worst is not the best way to approach it, for the prospect of another nearly four hundred pages of Hitchens’s determined archness is a little daunting. One begins almost to wonder if he hasn’t picked on the subjects of Anglophilia, Anglo-Americanism and the ‘special relationship’ as a final, huge sacred cow soft target. The key to the book is its subtitle: Anglo-American Ironies. For that is, one realises, Hitchens’s métier. As the French would put it, il ironise.

In fact, the book is shrewdly, even deftly done. Hitchens himself has been a beneficiary of the American assumption that an Englishman is, at least potentially and embryonically, a superior sort of American. The advent of Bush, with his emphasis on niceness, politeness and good tone, has done no harm to this notion. An Englishman is seen not just as a Wasp, but as quite probably someone with better education, taste and manners than a run-of-the-mill Bushman. The English have naturally been quick to encourage such a notion. As one of Evelyn Waugh’s California-based Anglos put is, ‘we limeys have a peculiar position to keep up ... You never find an Englishman among the underdogs – except in England of course.’ Hitchens is undoubtedly right when he says that nothing has so reinforced American Anglophilia as the fact that we are now so far from being the imperial rival we once were that Americans have no need for envy.

One is struck, however, by how different the tone and theme of the relationship was around the turn of the century when British and American power were more equal. Hitchens draws plentifully and fruitfully on the correspondence between Kipling and Theodore Roosevelt, and on such blushworthy events as the fêting of Admiral Mahan in London after the publication of his Influence of Sea Power upon History. He was dined by Queen Victoria and the Lord Mayor of London, received by the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister and given honorary degrees by Oxford and Cambridge within the space of a week. The reason? He had written a book which took England as his model, which saw America as ‘civilised’ to the extent that it had witnessed English victories over the French, and which foresaw an Anglo-American racial alliance against the ‘teeming multitudes’ of Asia. Music to the English ear: the accompaniment to an orgy of muscular imperial body language with much vainglorious toasting by dinner-jacketed men carried away by evocations of our common race memory.

Hitchens’s Oxford background comes to his aid in all this: he has glimpsed the significance of the Rhodes Scholarship and appears to have read his way through decades of The American Oxonian, the American Rhodes Scholars’ journal. For, of course, Oxford is an epicentre of this Anglo-American celebration, and it is still possible to attend occasional inaugural lectures and dinners which flash one back to the world of John Buchan. I make him a present of one such occasion: as a Rhodes Scholar I was wont to go to the annual Rhodes dinners, loud with the sort of rhetoric which would make Hitchens blench. Traditionally, there had been toasts to the Founder (Rhodes), the Chancellor of Germany, the American President and the Queen. Rhodes had to go because most Scholars came to disapprove violently of him as a racist and imperialist: we all took his money, felt guilty about it, and said it was OK because he was dead. The Chancellor had to be dropped in the Thirties, when it became clear that a toast to Hitler would create disorder: even some of the German Scholars refused to drink to him. In the mid-Sixties I watched as row after row of Scholars bitterly refused (as I did myself) to raise their glass to LBJ, whom we saw as a war criminal. The only toast which everyone could agree to was to the Queen.

Hitchens is good value on the American cult of Churchill, who stands for a sort of disembodied ‘greatness’ as a high-cast, good-taste Rambo with rhetorical abilities Stallone’s man never had. Not surprisingly, this gave him a special place in Reagan’s Washington. The Churchill Society was full of Capitol Hill Cold Warriors. Caspar Weinberger was a virtual Churchill freak, the possessor of a vast collection of Churchilliana, while one of Reagan’s first acts was to order a portrait of WC to be hung at the centre of the White House ‘situations room’, to give moral inspiration in the fight against the Evil Empire. From there the story leads on, inevitably, to the ‘imperial receivership’, with the Brits desperately hoping to have a sort of vicarious imperial afterlife by attaching themselves to Uncle Sam’s coat-tails, by flattering the American Romans in the vain hope of passing themselves off as Greeks, even by maintaining nuclear weapons largely in order to impress America with the thought that they were still a force to be reckoned with.

To all this Hitchens is a sure-footed guide. Il ironise: but what else to do? And as he himself admits, you can never hope to cover all the material. He doesn’t, for example, stop to contemplate the interesting latterday Buchanism of James Bond, that perfect English gent who somehow ends up saving the Free World on behalf of America. The Bond films have been an enormous American success and feature such classic Americana as the Space Shuttle, but trial and error have shown that the films only succeed if the leading role is played as a somewhat mannered gent of the old school (Sean Connery, Roger Moore). A rich field here ...

Blood, Class and Nostalgia is deservedly a success but its subject provokes a certain discomfort: most of all because one always has the sinking feeling that the American conception of the Brits is a hopeless fraud, that the awful truth is that we are not superior and more cultivated but a society with a uniquely low regard for education, a society which has been busy deskilling itself, which doesn’t even repair its museums and art galleries, a society perhaps more truthfully represented by the football hooligan than by the long-dead Churchill. Hitchens’s episodic and purely cultural treatment also leaves one feeling a bit empty-handed at the end. The relationship between any two major nations is inevitably about war, trade, investment and communications, and the fact that consideration of such factors is missing from this account somehow robs it of sinew. But one is also left feeling a little bemused. Not many international relationships have been as intense, multi-faceted and significant as that between Britain and America. It is a relationship which has known enormous drama, sacrifice and achievement. Is it really all just a matter for irony? How would we regard a portrayal of the French-American relationship, for example, as also just irretrievably comic? Or the relationship between Russia and Germany? Is solemnity really such a risk, however grateful one is for the jokes?