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What Christopher Hitchens Can Teach Us About Liberalism

Eleven years after his death, a look at the English writer’s dedication to democracy, free expression, and the idea of America.
December 15, 2022
What Christopher Hitchens Can Teach Us About Liberalism
Christopher Hitchens on May 17, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Marvin Joseph /The Washington Post via Getty Images)

[Editor’s note: Christopher Hitchens died eleven years ago today. This essay is excerpted from Matt Johnson’s forthcoming book, How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment, available February 14.]

In an essay about Charles Dickens, Orwell described his subject as “a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened . . . a man who is generously angry—in other words, of a nineteenth-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.” That’s how I would describe Christopher Hitchens, the brilliant and idiosyncratic public intellectual—even the nineteenth-century part. George Packer is right to observe that Hitchens was an old-fashioned radical and a “figure of the Enlightenment, a coffee-house pamphleteer, a ready duelist, an unreasonable fighter for reason, an émigré from England come to the New World to tell us what the universal words of our Declaration meant, and hold us to them.”

Hitchens was always fighting against something—novelist Martin Amis observed that “He likes the battle, the argument, the smell of cordite.” He embraced the battle as an end in itself, not only to refine his own arguments but also because (as John Stuart Mill understood) the open exchange of ideas is the foundation of civil society. He fought in the open because debate and discussion are the only tools civilization has to solve its problems short of violence and other forms of coercion. He was an advocate for free expression in opposition to restrictions of any kind: implicit speech codes enforced by one’s colleagues and fellow citizens and explicit speech codes enforced by the state or an authoritarian ideology. His nonnegotiable attitude toward free expression derived from the fact that he was a free intelligence—a heterodox thinker in an age of smelly little orthodoxies. “Don’t allow your thinking,” he wrote, “to be done for you by any party or faction, however high-minded.”His critics present him as a typical left-wing apostate, but they can only do so by ignoring all the ways he violates that pattern.

After Hitchens’s death, most of the tributes and recollections emphasized his terrifying presence on the debate stage or his prodigious memory and eloquence or the fact that he could drink all night and produce a thousand polished words before bed. There are dozens of published stories about Hitchens that seem to follow the same script: After drinking and talking with him into the small hours, his companion would wake up with a jackhammer of a hangover only to discover that Hitchens had pounded out a gleaming, erudite essay about Wilde or Waugh or Wodehouse.

Hitchens is a vintage figure, if not straight out of the nineteenth-century coffeehouses, then out of a time when the haze of cigarette smoke still filled American newsrooms and daily papers had large overseas bureaus. He said he could barely use his cell phone and claimed that he refused to stop using his typewriter until the last store in Washington, DC that sold ink ribbons closed. Hitchens was also a generalist and a polymath, which has become a rarity in an era of rigid academic specialization and bland hackwork for increasingly partisan publications.

After Hitchens’s death, journalist Jane Mayer described him as a “supernova in Washington” who stood out among the tedious procession of “dreary, self-editing power-seekers” in the nation’s capital.When journalist and social critic Malcolm Muggeridge read through the obituaries for Orwell, he believed he was witnessing “how the legend of a human being is created.” I sometimes got the same feeling when I read about Hitchens, but it was a peculiar type of legend that was in formation. When he invoked E.P. Thompson’s phrase “the enormous condescension of posterity” in anticipation of how his life and work may later be regarded, he didn’t realize how right he would prove.

A sort of Hunter S. Thompson effect started to take hold in the public perception of Hitchens. The descriptions of Hitchens in his last decade and the years following his death focus on the celebrity, the pugnacious provocateur, the booze-fueled, chain smoking, Oxford-educated English export who can reel off a few lines of Auden before eviscerating an opponent. Terms like “rapier wit” make frequent appearances in articles about Hitchens. His presence on YouTube is so extensive that he once referred to the site as “MeTube,” and you get the sense that many of his fans discovered him there. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but when you review the expanding library of “Hitch slaps” with thundering titles about how Hitchens “destroys” or “humiliates” one hapless opponent after another, you get the uneasy feeling that some of these fans never migrated from the videos to the books.

The pyrotechnics of Hitchens’s speech and writing make it easy to miss—and misstate—his arguments. Amis argued that he “didn’t deal in common sense. . . . There are plenty of people who can do common sense, and that wasn’t Christopher’s thing. It was saying something that went against the grain and then having to justify it. So that the Hitch was really debating with Christopher half the time.” Amis’s implication is that Hitchens went around picking fights and spouting unorthodox opinions merely because he loved fighting for its own sake. While there was certainly an element of that attitude in his personality—he acknowledged that many arguments are, in fact, intrinsically worth having—the image of Hitchens as an impulsive combatant and gadfly distracts from the coherent set of principles that informed his work.

Salman Rushdie believed Hitchens’s outspoken atheism was a return to form after a series of depressing aberrations: “The God is Not Great moment is sort of the moment at which Christopher came back from . . . the Iraq mistake, you know, and kind of regained his genuine intellectual ground.” That was the “real Christopher,” he said. But Hitchens never backed away from his position on Iraq and always regarded his opposition to Saddam Hussein and religion as expressions of the same anti-totalitarian principle. His positions on Afghanistan, Iraq, the Arab Spring, and Islamism weren’t such substantial deviations—or deviations at all—from his consistent defense of liberalism.

The most significant deviation was Hitchens’s shift from Marxism to the advocacy of a more fundamental set of liberal democratic principles. Like Paine, he was a radical pragmatist. When he broke from the International Socialists in the mid-1970s, he recalls in Hitch-22 his sudden realization that “democracy and pluralism were good things in themselves, and ends in themselves at that, rather than means to another end.”

It’s not that Hitchens believed socialism and liberalism are in some way incompatible—he recognized that many of the greatest liberals of the twentieth century (George Orwell, Bayard Rustin, C.L.R. James, Eugene V. Debs) were socialists, and he revered their radical achievements: “The socialist movement,” he explains in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “enabled universal suffrage, the imposition of limits upon exploitation, and the independence of colonial and subject populations. Where it succeeded, one can be proud of it.” But when Hitchens was “compelled to recognise that its day is quite possibly done,” he ignored the sneers of his ex-comrades who believe a commitment to liberal democracy as an end in itself is some kind of bourgeois compromise.

At the same time, Hitchens formed alliances with those who shared this commitment—whether on the left or the right. Several of the most influential and incisive liberals in the world today are generally considered to be on the center-right, such as Hitchens’s friends David Frum and Anne Applebaum. From the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the rise of Trumpism and nationalist authoritarianism in Europe, certain conservative intellectuals have demonstrated a far more consistent commitment to liberal democratic values than the nativists and isolationists on the right or the pseudo anti-imperialists and identitarians on the left. In the process, they have demonstrated that simple left-right binaries have become less useful in an age of surging authoritarianism and other forms of illiberalism on both ends of the political continuum.

“Many is the honorable radical and revolutionary,” Hitchens writes, “who may be found in the camp of the apparent counterrevolution. And the radical conservative is not a contradiction in terms.” Hitchens cites the example of Edmund Burke, who was a “very potent advocate for the rights of the American colonies, for the Bengalis robbed and bullied by the East India Company, and for his fellow Irishmen.” Meanwhile, Hitchens argues that the “noblest verdict on Paine is that he wanted the French Revolution to be more temperate and humane, and the American Revolution (by abolishing slavery and being decent to the Indians) to be more thoroughgoing and profound.” Hitchens also emphasized Orwell’s conservative (even reactionary) impulses, and he cited Lionel Trilling’s observation that conservative, even aristocratic virtues like “sportsmanship and gentlemanliness and dutifulness and physical courage . . . might come in handy as revolutionary virtues.”

Recall Hitchens’s final words in Why Orwell Matters:

What he [Orwell] illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that ‘views’ do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.

One of these individuals was Jacek Kuroń (the Polish dissident and major figure in the Solidarity movement), who, according to Hitchens’s account of their meeting, “punctured one of my illusions right away, by saying that he no longer had any illusions about Trotskyism. The real terrain of struggle was for democratic liberties and the rule of law.” Then there was Adam Michnik’s observation that the “real struggle for us is for the citizen to cease to be the property of the state.” What Hitchens described as the “principle of consistent anti-totalitarianism,” upheld by dissidents like Kuroń and Michnik, has a way of enduring.

As Hitchens became more explicit and consistent in his opposition to totalitarianism, he was increasingly suspicious of the left-wing fantasies that had once made him feel he was “yoked to the great steam engine of history.” By the end of his life, he regarded Utopia as a “fantastically potent illusion” and wrote in Hitch-22, “I suspect that the hardest thing for the idealist to surrender is the teleological, or the sense that there is some feasible, lovelier future that can be brought nearer by exertions in the present, and for which ‘sacrifices’ are justified.” But he also recognized that it was possible to dispense with this illusion and remain an idealist—even a revolutionary: “Those ‘simple’ ordinary propositions, of the open society, especially when contrasted with the lethal simplifications of that society’s sworn enemies, were all I required.”

When an interviewer asked Hitchens what socialists could learn from the twentieth century, he said, “They should learn that things such as the Enlightenment, secularism, rationality, [and the] commitment to reason can’t be taken for granted.” Hitchens argued that there would always be “powerful enemies” of the Enlightenment, and he decided that defeating those enemies and defending the open society was a more worthwhile political project than the effort to resurrect a moribund international socialist movement. And he recognized that this ideological shift “necessitated constant argument about the idea of America.”

Many on the left will tell you that Trumpism is an indictment of the global liberal order since the end of the Cold War—or even liberal democracy as it has been practiced since the creation of the United States of America. These are several of the left’s great projects today: deconstruct the political and economic institutions of the postwar world, shrink or disband the transatlantic and transpacific military alliances that have existed for 75 years, and expose the fact that the liberal democratic pretensions of the United States have been hollowed out by its warmongering, racism, and tireless pursuit of hegemony. Just as so many left-wing critics of Hitchens believed his true motives had to be the lowest ones—racism, greed, imperialism, sadism—they believe the same about their own societies.

Of course, the author of the Declaration of Independence was a slaveholder and a hypocrite, the Constitution did codify slavery, and the United States has subverted democracy and propped up dictators around the world. But it’s possible to acknowledge these blights and failures, as Hitchens did, while recognizing the essential radicalism of the American experiment. For an author so wedded to irony—and for a man who was powerfully repelled by America’s crimes and excesses, yet caught in the “strong gravitational pull of the great American planet”—Hitchens’s final embrace of the United States as a revolutionary force in the world was a fitting epilogue.

Hitchens considered himself a “Paine-ite.” His old-fashioned Enlightenment liberalism was more concerned with democratic first principles than the most common forms of liberalism today. It was a form of liberalism unencumbered by any postmodern obscurantism or relativism. It embraced the universalism of the Declaration of Independence without the monumental hypocrisy of its authors. It incorporated the egalitarianism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and rejected the forms of tribalism that have hijacked that egalitarianism. Like the great Enlightenment liberal philosophers, Hitchens took liberty to be the grounding political value: the liberty to speak and write openly, to be free of authoritarian domination, and to escape the arbitrary constraints of tribe, faith, and nation.

Immediately after the Soviet Union dissolved, Hitchens said patriotism belonged to the “squalling childhood of the human race.” A decade and a half later, he became an American. He did so out of solidarity with a country that was his home for decades—a country that had at that time just been attacked by a group of theocratic murderers who did, in fact, hate its freedoms, its tolerance, its openness, its embodiment of universal democratic values that the literal, one-book mind will never be able to comprehend. “I had lived in the nation’s capital for many years, and never particularly liked it,” Hitchens wrote,

But when it was exposed to attack, and looked and felt so goddamn vulnerable, I fused myself with it. I know now that no solvent can ever unglue that bond. And yes, before you ask, I could easily name Arabs, Iranians, Greeks, Mexicans, and others who felt precisely as I did, and who communicated it almost wordlessly.

The bond Hitchens felt with America was more fundamental than the bond between fellow citizens. When writing his book about Jefferson, Hitchens found himself “referring in the closing passages to ‘our’ republic and ‘our’ Constitution. I didn’t even notice that I had done this until I came to review the pages in final proof. What does it take for an immigrant to shift from ‘you’ to ‘we’?” People around the world mourned when America was attacked because America isn’t just a place—it’s an idea, and it belongs to everyone. This was Hitchens’s final argument.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson writes for Haaretz, Quillette, Arc Digital, and other publications. He is author of How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment.