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Hitchens: Brian Lamb of C-SPAN has been interviewing me on and off for about 20 years, since I’d first gone to Washington, which is roughly when his own Washington Journal program began. As the years went by, he formed the habit of starting every time by saying: "You haven’t been on the show for a bit. Tell me, are you still a socialist?" And I would always say, "Yes, I am." I knew that he hoped that one day I would say, "No, you know what, Brian, I’ve seen the light, I’ve seen the error of my ways." And I knew that I didn’t want to give him this satisfaction, even if I’d had a complete conversion experience.
The funny thing is that, recently, he stopped asking me. I don’t know why. And just about at that point, I had decided that however I would have phrased the answer -- I didn’t want to phrase it as someone repudiating his old friends or denouncing his old associations -- I no longer would have positively replied, "I am a socialist."
I don’t like to deny it. But it simply ceased to come up, as a matter of fact. And in my own life there’s a reason for that.
There is no longer a general socialist critique of capitalism -- certainly not the sort of critique that proposes an alternative or a replacement. There just is not and one has to face the fact, and it seems to me further that it’s very unlikely, though not impossible, that it will again be the case in the future. Though I don’t think that the contradictions, as we used to say, of the system, are by any means all resolved.
REASON: Many socialists have a radically anti-authoritarian disposition, even though the policies they would enact end up being authoritarian. What causes this divide?
Hitchens: Karl Marx was possibly the consummate anti-statist in his original writings and believed that the state was not the solution to social problems, but the outcome of them, the forcible resolution in favor of one ruling group. He thought that if you could give a name to utopia, it was the withering away of the state. Certainly those words had a big effect on me.
The reason why people tend to forget them, or the left has a tendency to forget them in practice, has something to do with the realm of necessity. If you make your priority -- let’s call it the 1930s -- the end of massive unemployment, which was then defined as one of the leading problems, there seemed no way to do it except by a program of public works. And, indeed, the fascist governments in Europe drew exactly the same conclusion at exactly the same time as Roosevelt did, and as, actually, the British Tories did not. But not because the Tories had a better idea of what to do about it. They actually favored unemployment as a means of disciplining the labor market.
You see what I mean: Right away, one’s in an argument, and there’s really nothing to do with utopia at all. And then temporary expedients become dogma very quickly -- especially if they seem to work.
Then there’s the question of whether or not people can be made by government to behave better. They can certainly be made to behave worse; fascism is the proof of that, and so is Stalinism. But a big experience, and this gets us a bit nearer the core of it, a very big influence on a number of people my age was the American civil rights movement, and the moral grandeur of that and also the astonishing speed and exclusiveness of its success. A lot of that did involve asking the government to condition people’s behavior, at least in the sense of saying there are certain kinds of private behavior that are now not lawful. And there seemed to be every moral justification for this, and I’m not sure I wouldn’t still say that there was.
But it’s become too easily extended as an analogy and as a metaphor -- and too unthinkingly applied. In my memory, the demand of the student radical was for the university to stop behaving as if it was my parent, in loco parentis. They pretend they’re your family, which is exactly what we’ve come here to get away from. We don’t want the dean telling us what we can smoke or who we can sleep with or what we can wear, or anything of this sort. That was a very important part of the ’60s.
Now you go to campus and student activists are continuously demanding more supervision, of themselves and of others, in order to assure proper behavior and in order to ensure that nobody gets upset. I think that’s the measure of what I mean.
REASON: Does that explain Ralph Nader’s popularity among students during last year’s election? He came across as a contrarian in his campaign, and became a hero to a lot of college students. You supported him, too. But he’s essentially a curmudgeon with a conservative disposition who advocated lots of regulation.
Hitchens: If I separate in my mind what it is that people like about Ralph, I’m certain the first thing is this: There are people who support him who don’t agree with him politically at all, or have no idea of what his politics are. I would be hard-put to say that I knew what his politics were, but the quality that people admired of him was certainly his probity, his integrity. It’s just impossible to imagine Ralph Nader taking an under-the-table campaign donation or a kickback. Or arranging to have someone assassinated, or any of these kinds of things. That’s not a small thing to say about somebody.
You’re right that his approach to life is in many ways a very conservative one. He leads a very austere, rather traditional mode of life. I met him first about 20 years ago. He contacted me, in fact, as he’d admired something I’d written. We met, and the main outcome of this was a 20-year campaign on his part to get me to stop smoking. In fact, he even offered me a large-ish sum of money once if I would quit. Almost as if he were my father or my uncle. Yes, generally speaking, he is a believer in the idea that government can better people, as well as condition them. But he’s not an authoritarian, somehow. The word would be paternalist, with the state looking after you, rather than trying to control you. But there’s some of us who don’t find the state, in its paternal guise, very much more attractive. In fact, it can be at its most sinister when it decides that what it’s doing is for your own good.
I certainly wish I wasn’t a smoker and wish I could give it up. But I’m damned if I’ll be treated how smokers are now being treated by not just the government, but the government ventriloquizing the majority. The majoritarian aspect makes it to me more repellent. And I must say it both startles and depresses me that an authoritarian majoritarianism of that kind can have made such great strides in America, almost unopposed. There’s something essentially un-American in the idea that I could not now open a bar in San Francisco that says, "Smokers Welcome."