Against it

Ross McKibbin

  • For the Sake of Argument by Christopher Hitchens
    Verso, 353 pp, £19.95, May 1993, ISBN 0 86091 435 6

Christopher Hitchens may not be ‘the nearest thing to a one-man band since I.F. Stone laid down his pen’, but he comes close. For the Sake of Argument records a life of action, of being in the right place at the right time. Thomas Mann could never find the revolution: Hitchens cannot help tripping over it. This is, no doubt, the privilege of the foreign correspondent, but some are clearly more privileged than others. He turns up in Central America, in Central Europe, in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, always at the crucial historical moment; he can extract from these moments a tragic episode or a comic anecdote which illuminates the whole. He really has heard – as most of us would like to hear – a neo-conservative speaker say (in English) ‘that it was no accident that the Russian language contained no word for détente.’ The life of action can also he used to subvert discreetly the academic couch-potato – the sort of person who might be expected to review this book. Of a visit to Prague in the last days of Communism, a visit which ended in his arrest, he writes that he has ‘seldom been arrested by such pitiable people’. It’s the ‘seldom’ that makes it so good.

Recording, as they do, the life of a working journo, the essays have more than a touch of the Street of Shame. There are many encounters in various ‘hell-holes’, in restaurants and bars in Charlotte Street and elsewhere which might or might not have now vanished. There is much wining and dining: perhaps more wining than dining to judge by the essay ‘Booze and Fags’ – a cheerful piece in praise of things which HM Government thinks very bad for your health. The price of what Susan Sontag has praised as Hitchens’s ‘high velocity’ can be the occasional slip: Disraeli did not ‘become’ prime minister in 1876, nor did Queen Victoria become Empress of India ‘within a few years’ (it was actually 1876); nor did Eden resign over Munich. The essays are knowing, in the literal sense. Hitchens knows lots of well-known persons – many of them individuals who the reader would also like to know. He is often very funny. There are hilarious set-pieces at the expense of, for example, John Braine and Paul Johnson.

For the Sake of Argument is not an easy book to précis. There are eight parts and 72 essays, the allocation of which is somewhat random. Most of the pieces in ‘Rogues’ Gallery’, for instance, could go equally well into ‘Studies in Demoralisation’. Nearly all the essays are, broadly speaking and in different ways, political. Some are political travelogues; others close studies of the inner workings of the American and British political systems; others still devoted to writers and artists – Goya, James Baldwin, Updike, Greene, George Eliot and, alas, P.G. Wodehouse. None of the essays is uninteresting and many of them have the virtues of the best kind of journalism – they tell you things you did not know and are unlikely to find out in more conventional quarters.

Henry Kissinger is Hitchens’s pet loathing and the catalogue of his doings an essential element in Hitchens’s analysis of the American state. The essays on Kissinger should be read with ‘Songs Fit for Heroes’, a reflection on ‘the recreational songbock of the US 77th Tactical Fighter Squadron’, a gruesome and deeply revealing collection of obscene and racist melodies which you will not find in more sober accounts of the United States Air Force. He is equally good on other totems in the Western world-view, like the ‘leathery old saint’, Mother Teresa. She lent her presence, it seems, to Baby Doc’s regime – ‘I have never seen the poor people being so familiar with their heads of state as they were with her,’ she observed of Michèle Duvalier: ‘It was a beautiful lesson for me.’ In 1989 she made a visit to Albania as a guest of Hoxha’s widow. She even managed somehow to get herself involved in the ‘heroic period’ of the Savings and Loans ‘bonanza’.

Of Kinnock’s decision to live with the Bomb, Hitchens writes: ‘It is never enough to take this test once. You will always be asked, like Arafat, whether you really mean it. You will never be able to stop the auction. You can never repudiate enough.’ That is very good. Although I think renunciation need not always he infinite and that Hitchens is consistently unfair to Kinnock, the trap of limitless renunciation is a danger that would-be respectable left-wing (but not right-wing) leaders often, and usually unknowingly, face. Of the unhistorical free-market mania that has seized the élites of Eastern Europe, he notes: ‘So when Hungarians talk about von Hayek as if he had just been discovered, and about unemployment as if it were a new style of exercise therapy, about Thatcher and Bush as if they were innovators, and about South Africa as if it were simply another market economy, one has the dreary sensation of watching a second-rate old movie, and of realising that one knows the ending.’ Unfortunately, the élites – in both West and East – all too rarely stay for the ending.

Hitchens dedicates this book to the memory of the ‘old brother-and-sisterhood of the Left opposition’. Everyone ‘has to descend or degenerate from some species of tradition, and this is mine’. This is a fairly eclectic and not entirely coherent tradition – here it includes Trotsky and the Trotskyites, the anarchists and oppositional Marxists like E.P. Thompson. Trotsky, whose career engages Hitchens (‘he remains the century’s most arresting instance of the aesthete and intellectual in politics’), and the anarchists make very incompatible bedfellows, while Edward Thompson was a born member of nature’s awkward squad. What they and Hitchens have in common is opposition. His Trotsky is the exiled prophet, not the victor of Kronstadt. All of them – Trotsky via political defeat – came to hate bureaucracies, self-serving oligarchies, shameless proponents of raison d’état. All of them – the anarchists by conviction, Trotsky and Thompson by experience of Stalin and the Cold War respectively – concluded that state bureaucracies, regardless of their ideological colouring, practise power politics in their own interest and suborn those they rule by force, secrecy and ideological dissimulation. Hitchens’s essays, true to his tradition, are, therefore, oppositional. Their function is propagandist: to uncover the interests which lie behind the ideological assertions of power politicians; to convince ordinary people that ordinary people should never – or hardly ever – believe those who, in the days of the Communist empire, were known in the East simply as them.

This oppositional tradition is both powerful and necessary. It is, however, important to remember that it is just that: oppositional. The intellectual danger of this stance is that individuals who practise politics, or who seek to, become ex hypothesi fools or knaves, and usually both. The terrain of politics thus loses any analytical interest. Even the old game ‘cock-up or conspiracy?’ which has provided many with a little harmless pleasure, can no longer be played since the distinction between the two is obliterated: they are both manifestations of the same depraved politics. Although Hitchens gives the Swedes a pat on the back it is hard to find here any ‘actually existing’ politicians or politics who earn his approbation or circumstances in which they might do so.

Dominating these essays is the late Cold War. This, for him, implicitly and explicitly, was the classic case of an ideological structure which sheltered self-interested élites who were either cynical or themselves deluded. The ‘struggle’ against Communism sanctioned the undermining of democratic institutions and created hosts of parasite bureaucracies which thrived to the extent that they could convince ordinary people they were performing legitimate functions.

The classic case of the classic case is of course the United States, and the bulk of these essays are directly or indirectly about America – particularly the America of Kissinger, Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Oliver North, the CIA, the Shah, the Contras, Castro and the Cubans, Vietnam, Saddam Hussein, the Gulf War, Shamir and the Likud. What this catalogue does to you rather depends on where you stand. To Hitchens it represents the external aspects of the secret government of an unstable imperium made the more dynamically erratic by the flaw at its heart: the fact that the United States possesses both an isolationist culture and an interventionist posture. Its heavy-handed and in the long run disastrous imperialism, and the murderous outcome of that both at home and abroad, are the result, I think he argues, of an aggressive and self-confident political culture unchecked by knowledge or intellectual reflection. How this was determined historically and whether it was inevitable is less clear.

The Cold War not only corrupted America’s political system, it suborned many of its intellectuals, transforming them into agents of a politics they would otherwise have despised. Here one senses an Orwellian tremor. Indeed, in his introduction Hitchens writes that he ‘saw no reason to discard the Orwellian standard in considering modern literature’, and he congratulates those who resisted what Orwell called ‘smelly little orthodoxies’. The invocation of Orwell is not always reassuring. On rereading the famous political section of The Road to Wigan Pier I was struck again by how wearisome Orwell’s politics can be – the tedious idées fixes, the lack of proportion and of judgment. Hitchens does not altogether escape this. The oft-recurring, ‘salon-voiding’ Podhoretzes (Norman, Midge and even son John) tend to burden these essays as Catholic intellectuals do Orwell’s. Not that what Hitchens writes about them is unentertaining – ‘Norman Podhoretz, another moral and intellectual hooligan who wishes he had the balls to be a real rat fink.’ It is just a question of how often you have to demolish a rat fink.

The general argument, however, is not entirely wrong: the Cold War was responsible for ferrying intellectuals who were once somewhere else to a position which could be defended only by adherence to propositions that were, in practice, indefensible. Hitchens points out how baffled so many Free World intellectuals were by Gorbachev. The various strands of the concept ‘totalitarian’, which tied them all, disabled them from admitting the possibility of real (as opposed to cosmetic) change in the Soviet Union. While it was, therefore, apparent to any reasonably well-informed layman that the USSR was disintegrating, the Free Worlders were detecting ever more cunning stratagems in the Soviet Union’s unending campaign for conquest. But although these Free World intellectuals had the ear of important persons in the Eighties, it is doubtful whether they were any more representative of intellectual opinion than the Catholic intellectuals were in the Thirties and Forties. It seems to me that later generations will be impressed by the extent to which the fundamental premises of the Cold War were always contested in the US, despite the coercive power of the American state and its ideologies. And that because the ideologies themselves were open to different interpretations and implied different outcomes.

What will later generations make of these essays and the context in which they were written? For the Sake of Argument is witness to the decay of the major victors of the Second World War, and to the partial collapse of the settlement they imposed, or tried to impose, on the rest of the world. Even in 1945, though neither leaders nor led recognised it, Britain was the mere crater of a great power. The consequences of its deliquescence were contained by a residual authority and the support of the United States. The collapse of the Soviet Union was much less predictable and the dissolution of its empire hardly less portentous. That leaves only one great power. But the American empire is also fraying. Though unquestionably still a ‘world power’, it is, relatively, very much weaker than in 1945, and ever since the Vietnamese catastrophe all American Administrations, even the most outwardly triumphalist, have been more conscious of weakness than of strength.

Virtually all the political essays in this book, from those on the wretched ‘panzerkommunist’ regimes in Eastern Europe to the almost helpless, though still dangerous, governments of Britain and the United States, are united thematically by this collapse. Nostalgia for lost power explains so much of what Hitchens has observed: in Britain a senescent political system based on a populist royalism; a defeatist former ruling élite – see his excellent review of Annan’s Our Age, ‘Clubland Intellectuals’; the unembarrassed acceptance of the rhetoric of restored greatness; and a timid social-democratic party which is now scarcely capable of thought or action. All these have combined to produce a political and social infantilism which shows few signs of disappearing. Hitchens does, however, note one hopeful sign, the slow spread of a vague republicanism among much of the population, particularly the young. ‘Can it be,’ he writes, ‘that, faced with the ghastly alliance between Fleet Street populism and enervated royalism, the British public has finally done what the Spencer girl cannot do, and started to grow up?’ Perhaps. But I would not hold my breath and I do not imagine Hitchens is holding his.

Decline and its discontents also informs much of what he says about the United States: military and intelligence organisations that are permitted to run riot; political and religious movements that successfully defy reality for so long; the corruptions of power at all levels. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, when one looks at the fate of the victorious in 1945, that the moral of these striking essays seems to be that power-politics destroys all those who touch it.