In the roughly two decades since British writer Christopher Hitchens arrived in the U.S., he has emerged as a singularly insightful, provocative, and impossible-to-ignore critic of American politics and culture. His regular columns for the left-wing think magazine The Nation and the glitzy celebrity sheet Vanity Fair stand out in both publications for their clarity of thought and prose. He famously served as one of the models for Peter Fallows, the memorable dissipated Brit journalist in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. His television appearances are legendary, none perhaps more so than his contretemps with Charlton Heston during CNN’s live coverage of the Gulf War. Hitchens insisted that Heston list what countries have borders with Iraq. After Heston flubbed the answer, he upbraided the journalist for "taking up valuable network time giving a high-school geography lesson." To which Hitchens replied: "Oh, keep your hairpiece on."
Though the 52-year-old Hitchens clearly enjoys mocking the famous and the powerful -- he once derided the House of Windsor for "sucking off [Britain’s] national tit" -- he’s no mere gadfly. In books such as The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie To, and The Trial of Henry Kissinger, he has crafted thoughtful and provocative extended indictments of Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, and the former secretary of state and Nobel Peace Prize winner; his recent collection, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, was reviewed in the July issue of REASON. (See "Literary Legislators.")
Hitchens’ willingness to put moral principles before political alliances has earned him the wrath of ideological compatriots. When he signed an affidavit contradicting testimony by Clinton administration aide Sidney Blumenthal that the president had never circulated tales of Monica Lewinsky as a crazed stalker, Hitchens was attacked as a liar and a snitch in the pages of The Nation and almost ended his relationship with the magazine.
Hitchens’ newest book is Letters to a Young Contrarian: The Art of Mentoring (Basic Books), in which he exhorts youth to remain both principled and oppositional, freethinkers in the best Enlightenment tradition. Given such thoughts, it’s not surprising that Hitchens’ next book will be about George Orwell. Nor is it surprising to find him increasingly interested in alternatives to orthodox left-wing thinking. A regular reader of REASON -- a few years back, he wrote that he gets "more out of reading...REASON than I do out of many ‘movement’ journals" -- Hitchens has become increasingly interested in the libertarian critique of state power and its defense of individual liberty. "I am," he says, "much more inclined to stress those issues...to see that they do possess, with a capital H and a capital I, Historical Importance."
Appropriately, Rhys Southan, REASON’s Burton Gray Memorial Intern and the youngest member of our staff, interviewed Hitchens in late August.
REASON: How were you different as a young contrarian than you are as an older one?
Christopher Hitchens: The book forces me to ask that question, and yet I don’t quite. I must say that I’ve always found the generational emphasis on the way that my youth was covered to be very annoying. There were a lot of other people born in April 1949, and I just don’t feel like I have anything in common with most of them. I forget who it was who said that generation -- age group, in other words -- is the most debased form of solidarity. The idea of anyone who was born around that time having an automatic ticket to being called "a ’60s person," is annoying to me. Especially membership in the specific group that I could claim to have been a part of: not just of "the ’60s," but of 1968. There’s even a French term for it: soixante-huitard. You can now guess roughly what the political parameters were for me at the time. And you can also guess at least one of the sources of my irritation, which is that by generational analysis, Bill Clinton and I are of the same kidney and same DNA. I repudiate that with every fiber.
But I’m postponing an answer to your question. In those days, I was very much in rebellion against the state. The state had presented itself to [my fellow protestors and me], particularly through the Vietnam War, in the character of a liar and a murderer. If, at a young age, you are able to see your own government in that character, it powerfully conditions the rest of your life. I was taught very early on that the state can be, and is, a liar and a murderer. Yet I have to concede that I didn’t think there was a problem necessarily with the state, or government, or collective power.
I had been interested in libertarian ideas when I was younger. I set aside this interest in the ’60s simply because all the overwhelming political questions seemed to sideline issues of individual liberty in favor of what seemed then to be grander questions. I suppose what would make me different now is that I am much more inclined to stress those issues of individual liberty than I would have been then. And to see that they do possess, with a capital H and a capital I, Historical Importance, the very things that one thought one was looking for.
REASON: When did your focus change? In Letters, you write that you’ve "learned a good deal from the libertarian critique" of the idea that the individual belongs to the state and you praise a friend who taught you that "the crucial distinction between systems...was no longer ideological. The main political difference was between those who did, and those who did not, believe that the citizen could -- or should -- be the property of the state."
Hitchens: It’s hard to assign a date. I threw in my lot with the left because on all manner of pressing topics -- the Vietnam atrocity, nuclear weapons, racism, oligarchy -- there didn’t seem to be any distinctive libertarian view. I must say that this still seems to me to be the case, at least where issues of internationalism are concerned. What is the libertarian take, for example, on Bosnia or Palestine?
There’s also something faintly ahistorical about the libertarian worldview. When I became a socialist it was largely the outcome of a study of history, taking sides, so to speak, in the battles over industrialism and war and empire. I can’t -- and this may be a limit on my own imagination or education -- picture a libertarian analysis of 1848 or 1914. I look forward to further discussions on this, but for the moment I guess I’d say that libertarianism often feels like an optional philosophy for citizens in societies or cultures that are already developed or prosperous or stable. I find libertarians more worried about the over-mighty state than the unaccountable corporation. The great thing about the present state of affairs is the way it combines the worst of bureaucracy with the worst of the insurance companies.
What I did was to keep two sets of books in my mind. I was certainly interested in issues that have always interested libertarians -- defining what the limits to state power are. The first political issue on which I’d ever decided to take a stand was when I was in my teens and before I’d become a socialist. It was the question of capital punishment. A large part of my outrage toward capital punishment was exactly the feeling that it was arrogating too much power to the government. It was giving life-and-death power to the state, which I didn’t think it deserved, even if it could use it wisely. I was convinced it could not and did not.
In the mid-1970s, I first met someone whom I’ve gotten to know better since, Adam Michnik, one of the more brilliant of the Polish dissidents of the time. Michnik made the luminous remark you quoted about the citizen and his relation to the state. I remember thinking, "Well, that’s a remark that’s impossible to forget."
REASON: So, do you still consider yourself a socialist?
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."
REASON: The right and the left have joined together in a war against pleasure. What caused this?
Hitchens: The most politically encouraging event on the horizon -- which is a very bleak one politically -- is the possibility of fusion or synthesis of some of the positions of what is to be called left and some of what is to be called libertarian. The critical junction could be, and in some ways already is, the War on Drugs.
The War on Drugs is an attempt by force, by the state, at mass behavior modification. Among other things, it is a denial of medical rights, and certainly a denial of all civil and political rights. It involves a collusion with the most gruesome possible allies in the Third World. It’s very hard for me to say that there’s an issue more important than that at the moment. It may sound like a hysterical thing to say, but I really think it’s much more important than welfare policy, for example. It’s self-evidently a very, very important matter. Important enough, perhaps, to create this synthesis I’ve been looking for, or help to do that.
REASON: What are the signs that political fusion between some libertarians and some leftists is happening?
Hitchens: One reason the War on Drugs goes on in defiance of all reason is that it has created an enormous clientele of people who in one way or another depend upon it for their careers or for their jobs. That’s true of congressmen who can’t really get funding for their district unless it’s in some way related to anti-drug activity. There’s all kinds of funding that can be smuggled through customs as anti-drug money -- all the way to the vast squads of people who are paid to try to put the traffic down, and so forth. So what’s impressive is how many people whose job it has been to enforce this war are coming out now and saying that it’s obviously, at best, a waste of time.
The other encouraging sign is that those in the political-intellectual class who’ve gone public about it have tended to be on what would conventionally have been called the right. Some of them are fairly mainstream Republicans, like the governor of New Mexico. National Review, under the ownership of William Buckley, published a special issue devoted to exposing the fallacies and appalling consequences of the War on Drugs. I thought that should have been The Nation that did that. I now wouldn’t care so much about the precedence in that. It wouldn’t matter to me who was first any longer. I don’t have any allegiances like that anymore. I don’t ask what people’s politics are. I ask what their principles are.
REASON: Has your own shift in principles changed your relationship with The Nation?
Hitchens: For a while it did. I thought at one point that I might have to resign from the magazine. That was over, in general, its defense of Bill Clinton in office, which I still think was a historic mistake made by left-liberals in this country. It completely squandered the claim of a magazine like The Nation to be a journal of opposition. By supporting Clinton, The Nation became a journal more or less of the consensus. And of the rightward moving consensus at that, because I don’t think there’s any way of describing Bill Clinton as an enemy of conservatism.
I’d been made aware by someone in the Clinton administration of what I thought was criminal activity. At any rate, the administration engaged in extraordinarily reprehensible activity by way of intimidating female witnesses in an important case. I decided that I would be obstructing justice if I’d kept the evidence to myself. That led to me being denounced in The Nation as the equivalent of a McCarthyite state invigilator, which I thought was absurd. Where I live, the White House is the government. So if one attacks it, one isn’t reporting one’s friends to the government, so to speak, by definition.
The controversy shows the amazing persistence of antediluvian categories and habits of thought on the left, and these were applied to me in a very mendacious and I thought rather thuggish way. I had to make an issue of it with the magazine, and I was prepared to quit. But we were able to come to an agreement. They stopped saying this about me, in other words.
But there is no such thing as a radical left anymore. �a n’existe pas. The world of Gloria Steinem and Jesse Jackson, let’s say, has all been, though it doesn’t realize it, hopelessly compromised by selling out to Clintonism. It became, under no pressure at all, and with no excuse, and in no danger, a voluntary apologist for abuse of power.
It couldn’t wait to sell out. It didn’t even read the small print or ask how much or act as if it were forced under pressure to do so. I don’t think they’ve realized how that’s changed everything for them. They’re not a left. They’re just another self-interested faction with an attitude toward government and a hope that it can get some of its people in there. That makes it the same as everyone else -- only slightly more hypocritical and slightly more self-righteous.
REASON: In Letters to a Young Contrarian, you talk about how it was libertarians -- specifically Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan -- who did the most to end the draft by persuading President Nixon’s special commission on the matter that mandatory military service represented a form of slavery. Is it the contrarians from unexpected ranks that enact real change?
Hitchens: Absolutely. Mr. Greenspan and Mr. Friedman used my mantra correctly by saying the draft would make the citizen the property of the state. To argue against them, however, I’ll quote someone whom neither of them particularly likes, but whom I think they both respect. John Maynard Keynes said somewhere -- I think in Essays in Persuasion -- that many revolutions are begun by conservatives because these are people who tried to make the existing system work and they know why it does not. Which is quite a profound insight. It used to be known in Marx’s terms as revolution from above.
It would indeed come from enlightened and often self-interested members of the old regime who perfectly well knew that the assurances being given to the ruler were false. That the system didn’t know what was going on or how to provide for itself, but couldn’t bear to acknowledge that fact and had no means for self-correction. That is indeed how revolutions often begin.
REASON: What do you think about the anti-globalization movement? Is it contrarian or radical in your sense?
Hitchens: There was a long lapse where it seemed that nobody took to the streets at all, and where the idea of taking to the streets had begun to seem like something really from a bygone era. It came back very suddenly, initially in Seattle. In some kind of promethean way, the idea was passed on and contained, perhaps like fire in a reed, only to break out again.
In a way I should have been pleased to see that, and I suppose in some small way I was, but a lot of this did seem to me to be a protest against modernity, and to have a very conservative twinge, in the sense of being reactionary. It’s often forgotten that the Port Huron Statement, the famous Students for a Democratic Society document, was in part a protest against mechanization, against bigness, against scale, against industrialization, against the hugeness and impersonality of, as it thought of it, capitalism. There were elements of that that I agreed with at the time, particularly the interface between the military and the industrial [segments of society].
I do remember thinking that it had a sort of archaic character to it, exactly the kind of thing that Marx attacked, in fact, in the early critiques of capitalism. What SDS seemed to want was a sort of organic, more rural-based, traditional society, which probably wouldn’t be a good thing if you could have it. But you can’t, so it’s foolish to demand such a thing. This tendency has come out as the leading one in what I can see of the anti-globalization protesters. I hear the word globalization and it sounds to me like a very good idea. I like the sound of it. It sounds innovative and internationalist.
To many people it’s a word of almost diabolic significance -- as if there could be a non-global response to something.
REASON: This anti-global approach seems especially surprising coming from the left.
Hitchens: The Seattle protesters, I suppose you could say, in some ways came from the left. You couldn’t say they came from the right, although a hysterical aversion to world government and internationalism is a very, very American nativist right-wing mentality. It’s the sort that is out of fashion now but believe me, if you go on radio stations to talk about Henry Kissinger, as I have recently, you can find it. There are people who don’t care about Kissinger massacring people in East Timor, or overthrowing democracy in Chile, or anything of that sort. But they do believe he’s a tool of David Rockefeller, and the Trilateral Commission, and the secret world government. That used to be a big deal in California in the ’50s and ’60s with the John Birch Society.
There are elements of that kind of thing to be found in the anti-globalization protests, but the sad thing is that practically everything I’ve just said wouldn’t even be understood by most of the people who attend the current protests, because they wouldn’t get the references.
REASON: You’ve called yourself a socialist living in a time when capitalism is more revolutionary.
Hitchens: I said this quite recently. I’m glad you noticed it. Most of the readers of The Nation seemed not to have noticed it. That was the first time I’d decided it was time I shared my hand. I forget whether I said I was an ex-socialist, or recovering Marxist, or whatever, but that would have been provisional or stylistic. The thing I’ve often tried to point out to people from the early days of the Thatcher revolution in Britain was that the political consensus had been broken, and from the right. The revolutionary, radical forces in British life were being led by the conservatives. That was something that almost nobody, with the very slight exception of myself, had foreseen.
I’d realized in 1979, the year she won, that though I was a member of the Labour Party, I wasn’t going to vote for it. I couldn’t bring myself to vote conservative. That’s purely visceral. It was nothing to do with my mind, really. I just couldn’t physically do it. I’ll never get over that, but that’s my private problem.
But I did realize that by subtracting my vote from the Labour Party, I was effectively voting for Thatcher to win. That’s how I discovered that that’s what I secretly hoped would happen. And I’m very glad I did. I wouldn’t have been able to say the same about Reagan, I must say. But I don’t think he had her intellectual or moral courage. This would be a very long discussion. You wouldn’t conceivably be able to get it into a REASON interview.
Marx’s original insight about capitalism was that it was the most revolutionary and creative force ever to appear in human history. And though it brought with it enormous attendant dangers, [the revolutionary nature] was the first thing to recognize about it. That is actually what the Manifesto is all about. As far as I know, no better summary of the beauty of capital has ever been written. You sort of know it’s true, and yet it can’t be, because it doesn’t compute in the way we’re taught to think. Any more than it computes, for example, that Marx and Engels thought that America was the great country of freedom and revolution and Russia was the great country of tyranny and backwardness.
But that’s exactly what they did think, and you can still astonish people at dinner parties by saying that. To me it’s as true as knowing my own middle name. Imagine what it is to live in a culture where people’s first instinct when you say it is to laugh. Or to look bewildered. But that’s the nearest I’ve come to stating not just what I believe, but everything I ever have believed, all in one girth.