The Last Revolution in Town
Stephen Marshall interviews Christopher Hitchens on the death of that other religion: liberalism
Here Marshall ambushes Hitchens in the Green Room at Hay and gets to the bottom of his conversion from that other religion he so despises: liberalism.
The Hay Festival grounds are buzzing with excitement. Elevated above the verdant earth on wooden platforms, green-carpeted floors connect a network of pristine white tents and open-air restaurants. Sequestered in a remote corner, off the more trafficked gangways, is a quiet room with French doors that open to its own private garden. It is here, far from the madding crowd, in the exclusive Green Room, that small clusters of VIPs gather between events to drink tea, eat biscuits and swallow fresh strawberries.
During the rush and tumble of the festival, A-list authors and their well-groomed agents mix with politicians, actors and the children of British aristocracy. There is a Guinness and a Rothschild. Alexander Waugh, the grandson of Evelyn, sits near Barney Broomfield, son of famed British documentary film-maker Nick. In the center of the room, a group of men are gathered around the beautiful violinist/actress/journalist Clemency Burton-Hill, whose concert performance the night before reportedly brought many in the audience to tears. But there is one person conspicuously absent.
If Hay is to books what Glastonbury is to music, then Christopher Hitchens is the festival’s resident Liam Gallagher. Like the lead singer of Oasis, who lit up crowds with his zeitgeist lyrics, epic rudeness and raised middle fingers, Hitchens is the primary draw of Hay’s opening weekend, pulling crowds of one and two thousand strong to see him chain smoke his way through a debate about religion, war or literature with some other chart-topping intellectual of the day. If they’re really lucky, they’ll get to see him tell a member of the audience to fuck off.
I see Hitchens standing with a few people who are preparing to leave. Sensing a chance to get him in Hay-mode, I step in and ask for an interview for my book. Looking at me, he hardens his lips and shrugs his shoulders. “Why not?”
A few moments later, Hitchens is seated again, looking at me through brown-tinted aviators. I ask him what it’s like, the world seen through a brandy bottle. “Sherry,” he corrects me and lights a Rothman cigarette. Sitting next to me on a floral patterned wicker chair, he looks tired. I ask him if perhaps we should postpone the interview to another time.
“No, I find this topic rather energizing.”
In the next hour Hitchens will smoke seven cigarettes and beckon twice for the girls in the Green Room to bring him more “apple juice” and fizzy water while I struggle to avoid asking a stupid question. It begins with a simple one: “Do you call yourself a liberal?”
“A few people have introduced me as or referred to me as a ‘former’ liberal and I’ve never been one, and in fact, I’ve hung on calling myself a socialist probably a little longer than I should have. Partly because it was a way of stating one wasn’t merely a liberal. And that’s because I was brought up, politically, at least, a lot in England where liberal suggested simply middle-class compromising.”
Hitchens’ major inspiration to become a writer came while sitting in a public library in Devonshire, reading an essay by Connor Cruise O’Brien, the Irish diplomat and historian. In it, O’Brien refers to liberalism as “the word that makes the rich world yawn and the poor world sick.” Being labeled it was a charge considered “damaging” in Africa, Asia and Latin America where, O’Brien explains, “the American and European liberal has too often been – and is perhaps increasingly – a false friend.” Casting the Kennedy-era American UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson as the liberal voice par excellence, O’Brien describes how the liberal state’s benevolence looked to its recipients:
“From this viewpoint, Mr. Stevenson’s face, with its shiftily earnest advocate’s expression, is the ingratiating moral mask which a toughly acquisitive society wears before the world it robs: ‘liberalism’ is the ideology of the rich, the elevation into universal values of the codes which favoured the emergence, and favour the continuance, of the capitalist society.”
It was an indictment that resonated with Hitchens, then a budding eighteen year-old socialist.
“Actually, if you read that essay,” he explains, “it was exactly what I felt for us on the left in Britain: the word liberal was a very rude thing to call somebody. Liberalism was an attempt to drape capitalism with some kind of pious social conscience… It used to be preceded almost always with the term ‘wishy-washy.’”
Hitchens takes a long drag on his cigarette, adding, “In America now, liberal is the word that the right uses to defame secularism, welfarism, anti-militarism and so on. I think because it’s no longer plausible to attack communism. There used to be two ways of attacking liberalism. One was to say ‘limousine liberal’ – it’s very much what one would call myself – and the other was as ‘soft on’ communism.”
In fact, these were both identifiers that could have been pinned on the pre-9/11 Hitchens. As far back as his student years at Oxford, he was adept at playing both sides of the class line, between revolutionary socialists and high class fashionistas. As Martin Walker, one of his classmates, recalls, “He was criticized for being a ‘champagne socialist’ or a ‘country-house revolutionary’.” And this flirtation with elite groups wasn’t lessened by his status as a Washington journalist, even when he was still writing for the Nation. As early as 1999, the Washington Post described Hitchens as belonging to “a rarefied world where the top pols and bureaucrats sup with the media and literary elite at exclusive dinner parties. It’s a cozy little club of confidential sources and off-the-record confidences…”
For many of his critics, the most damning evidence of his duplicitous turncoatism hinges on the articulate case he made for the indictment of authoritarian statesmanship in The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001). For younger readers, myself included, this was our introduction to Hitchens the polemicist. And the understanding, though simplistic, was that he was against government agents who used their power selectively, justifying any use of covert or widescale military force as necessary for the preservation of the American interests. But for Hitchens, his contempt for Kissinger not only made sense in terms of his socialist politics, but also as a foundation for his support of the invasion of Iraq.
“When I wrote the Kissinger book, where would I have been then? If someone would’ve said ‘are you a socialist’ I would have been reluctant to deny it. And I certainly wrote it from – it’s the outcome of years and years of struggling against Kissinger, trying to expose him from the left. As for me being in support for regime change in Iraq, that to me is a direct extension of the critique of Kissingerian realism. Or neo-realism.”
In fact, this was the very point on which he found consensus with the neo-conservatives, who were newly installed in Washington just as Trial was being released. Hitchens recalls his first meeting with Paul Wolfowitz – “I was very flattered, I suppose, some might say I had been unduly impressed” – in which the Deputy Secretary of Defense was “at pains to make it clear to me that he regarded himself he as the opposition to, the opposite of Kissinger.”
Clearly, for the neo-cons, whom we later learned had their eyes set on Iraq long before they took power in the Bush administration, Hitchens was a perfect ally. As one of the highest profile leftist writers in America, and a sympathetic comrade of Ahmad Chalabi, the former head of the Iraqi National Congress who once bragged of feeding the U.S. intelligence false information about WMD in order to bolster the case for invasion, he would prove to be one of their greatest assets in prosecuting the war.
But while the case can be made that Hitchens, like New York Times martyr Judith Miller, became an unwitting channel for the Pentagon’s pre-war propaganda, he sees it differently. Writing in the preface to Regime Change, his 2003 collection of essays on Iraq, he argued his position for U.S. military intervention from the “viewpoint of one who took the side of the Iraqi and Kurdish opposition to Saddam Hussein, who hoped for their victory, and who then had come to believe that the chiefest and gravest mistake of Western and especially American statecraft had been to reconfirm Saddam Hussein in power in 1991.”
So for him, the issue was always one of liberation for the Kurds and Shia first, the rest of the country second. The ends would justify the means, even if that meant racking up a hundred thousand Iraqi casualties in the military action and subsequent occupation. It almost sounds… Kissingerian.
I wonder if the neo-conservatives have the same compassionate register for the victims of Saddam’s brutal regime of which, even Hitchens admits “the worst atrocities, mass murder with genocidal intent, torture, aggression, and so forth were committed when Saddam Hussein was the recipient of Western favor and protection.” Or if that even matters.
For Hitchens the war represents a kind of dual regime change for both Iraq and the United States. In the past, they were linked by a status quo policy that protected men like Saddam. It was in American interests to have strong leaders who were allied to them. But with the neo-cons all that has changed.
“I think it’s a good thing that American national interests are present in, and can apparently be made congruent to, the spread of democracy. It doesn’t happen without people fighting for it. It’s not just objectively true. You have to fight to make it true, so that it becomes so. It comes to a very interesting point that a lot of people don’t recognize, where the U.S. realized that, especially in the Middle East, it couldn’t go on wanting this political slum, where they’re using proxy leaders and client regimes, or movements, and picking up and dropping different clients according to shifting allegiances. Investing themselves in the survivors, that they would have to take the risk that even though more democracy might not make people act in pro-American ways, it’s much better than status quo.”
Hitchens sips quickly from his glass and lights another cigarette. “We went to war on the status quo in the Middle East. Which is a pretty amazing thing for an isolationist republic. It was mainly because a couple of people, Wolfowitz among them, won that argument in the White House, and in the Republican Party. They converted Cheney. Which is very important.”
Important because for corporatist political leaders like Cheney, the only use for Iraq was under the sand.
“Cheney wanted to lift the sanctions.” Hitchens leans forward and affects a sterner expression, channeling ogrish VP: “Fuck this, this is liberal humanitarianism. Let’s get back to doing business. Buying and selling a bit of oil, that’s what we do. The rest of it can go fuck itself. They can’t drink the oil. In the end, they’ll come around to see things our way.’”
So the neo-cons converted him. Shook out the selfish short-sightedness and got him on board for the bigger vision thing. But I’m curious about something. In all of the reading I have done on Hitchens’ advocacy of the regime change, he never intimates that there is any economic benefit in the occupation. I take a broad swipe at it.
“The word neo-liberal is often used to describe the way America asserts itself economically in the world.”
“Do you feel that is a relevant term and how would you describe its nature and relationship to U.S. world power?”
“The U.S. needs access to everyone else’s markets. And that world order is often described as neo-liberal, yeah.”
I wonder if Hitchens, the former socialist, has really questioned the role of free market neo-liberalism in the prosecution of this war. Because for many in our generation, the American promise of liberal democracy is also part of a negotiation in which US corporate interests, who the American government essentially represents, are looking to expand the perimeter of their marketplace and enfranchise new people in it as both cheap labor and consumers.
“Isn’t that system itself riddled with inherent inequities and unfairness that may actually contravene the essential liberal values?” I ask.
Hitchens leans in and speaks very quietly.
“It seems to me to be true. Though I don’t think the hegemonism of what America wants to say in the Middle East or in Venezuela is the only thing to notice about the policy – because there are so many other authorities, some of them positive. But it is quite clear that one form of liberalism, market liberalism, is very much identified with the American way and the American state.”
I suggest the natural extension of that is the neo-liberal belief in a connection between free market and a free society. Hitchens agrees. “There appears to be one. And this includes a respect for law and respect for individuals as well as human rights for groups or minorities. And there are many, many places in the world where the adoption of a liberal policy, so defined, would be a step up. A big one.”
I look over at Hitchens and I see him speaking out his thoughts. He is now engaging in a confession of his own loss of faith in the great socialist dream, the one that once offered a glimmer of hope in the face of capitalism’s all-out assault on the virtues of a communitarian society.
“There’s obviously been a great trial that could’ve been about social democracy… And you see, that’s what people don’t believe anymore. That’s what made me give up. There is no other plausible internationalist movement with a socialist agenda, nor is there a plausible theory of power; that capitalism could be challenged. There isn’t. For the first time in its history, capitalism doesn’t have an ideological enemy.
“So in effect, capitalism is having another revolution. So you have to go back to the original Marxism and look at the Manifesto and remind yourself, ‘That is what the old boy said’. This is the greatest revolution in human history, all we need is to have it run by workers, not by the owners. We need to have those who produce, making the production decisions. Extremely powerful and attractive ideology.”
“It is,” I submit.
“But now Quixotic. Some of these contradictions replicate themselves. In South Korea, at least until recently, there were a huge numbers of workers who had, a generation before, been peasants. And now in newly assembled cities and factories and plants, generating an enormous amount of wealth, and working very hard in very repressive conditions, making things they couldn’t afford to buy. The moment comes when the workers want to buy the cars. Now South Korea has more or less past that point. It did happen. But for a while, as in Brazil, you were looking at the early stages of industrialization. But as Marx would’ve done, noticing it means environmental degradation, short-termism, pollution, terrible labor exploitation, huge social dislocation, miserable cities full of cowed, overworked people. But in the end it produces enough wealth to make people want to press on until they have a share in it.”
Hitchens pauses and drinks from his glass. The Green Room has suddenly gotten very quiet. The most quiet since I arrived. Looking around, I realize that we are among the last people remaining.
I wonder if he is finished with his thoughts, since he has almost ceased to look at me, it is as if he is talking to himself. Taking out another cigarette, he continues.
“I think the verdict of history is in, one may feel a little wistful about it, but wistfulness is no good as a dialectical method. At all. So, in fact, capitalism is reasserting itself as the only revolution. And it takes a Marxist to see it, sometimes.”
“Asserting itself as what kind of revolution?” I ask.
“As the only dynamic revolutionary force in the world, reasserting itself after having gone through terrible decay; after all capitalism led to imperialism, to fascism, to war. Led to the great crisis in the 20s and 30s. It’s true, don’t let’s forget. And not just morally true, it’s politically true. It looked as if it were dead-ended. It really did. And to most of its supporters it did too. And that’s why they went Keynesian. They thought, we can only save it this way. You had to buy [the workers] off. That’s what’s happened since: you’ve got to give these guys a health service, protection of work, and this and that. And also give them some money so they can go on buying things.
“It will never get to the point of stasis, it will keep on consuming itself.” Hitchens looks up at the ceiling. He waves his hand at the wall, searching for something in his memory, “What’s umm… for crying out loud, I can’t –”
It’s a rare moment that he forgets anything of importance. I shift in my seat, unsure of what to say, and afraid to have him terminate the interview at this point.
“Don’t worry,” I try to reassure him.
“But I do.” Hitchens puts his glass down and begins moving methodically toward the name.
“One of the great theorists who wrote about the clash between capitalism and socialism was instinctually, himself, a socialist, but had great respect for capitalism. Schumpeter.”
I breathe a quiet sigh of relief. Hitchens takes a hard drag from his cigarette and continues.
“Joseph Schumpeter called it creative destruction: capitalism needs to go on devouring things and making things unstable and dangerous in order to keep on existing. Finding shorter and more scientific routes to production, productivity, demand, efficiency, discarding waste or competition, creating and then breaking up monopolies. It creates a destructive force. But anyone can recognize it as a revolution. It’s the only revolution in town.”
He says it with a kind of swagger that almost feels triumphant and then declares the inevitable: “But now we think it’s very unlikely that its workers will become its managers. That doesn’t seem as if that’s ever going to happen. They can become its beneficiaries.”
In his essay that so inspired the young socialist Hitchens, Connor Cruise O’Brien chronicles a conversation between himself and Kwame Nkrumah, the pan-Africanist leader who became the first Prime Minister of Ghana. Nkrumah was then involved in trying to make Ghana into a socialist society. Of this effort, O’Brien writes, he believed “this government had been right to reject the façade of liberalism,” and that he saw in it a “greater sense of responsibility to the people – not in a formal sense but in a profound one – than [in] neighbouring states with more apparently liberal constitutions.”
When Nkrumah asked O’Brien, who was there to work with the government, if he was a socialist, the Irishman replied that he was, understanding that to be a liberal in Africa was to be a “false friend.” But driving home after the interview, Connor explains, he realized that a liberal was in fact what he was.
“Whatever I might argue, I was more profoundly attached to liberal concepts of freedom… than I was to the idea of a disciplined party mobilizing all the forces of society for the creation of a social order guaranteeing more real freedom for all instead of just for a few.”
I wonder if Hitchens is aware of just how much he echoes the reluctant admission of his literary polestar in his own acquiescence to the fatality of the socialist ideal. As one of the highest-paid writers in the United States, what else can he do but accept his own latent capitalism?
“It means we’ve conceded,” he says, “that capitalism has embarked on another revolution. It’s not only survived the battle with socialism but it’s replenishing and extending and strengthening itself, without a viable or plausible alternative.”
With the daylight now flirting with the crimson hues of sunset, Hitchens rises from his chair. Bidding me goodbye, he wishes me luck in discovering my own path, away from the Left he now sees as reactionary defenders of the status quo.
“There’s no longer any Left and I can’t be any part of it. It took a lot for me to get to the realization that it was,” he pauses for effect, “conservative. I wasted so much time… you could save yourself the trouble. You’ll feel better.”
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Stephen Marshall is a writer and award-winning filmmaker. A founder of Guerrilla News Network, he is co-author of the book True Lies (Plume) with GNN colleague Anthony Lappé. He is the director of the feature film This Revolution, documentary features such as Battleground: 21 Days on the Empire’s Edge, and controversial, politicized music videos for the Beastie Boys, Eminem and 50 Cent. Over the span of his career, he has traveled and worked in more than 80 countries. He lives in New York City.
Marshall’s second book, out now, is Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing. As the Democrats retake Washington and progressives think they can pull the U.S. back from the brink, his up close and personal investigation finds that the biggest threat to Western democracy is the U.S. liberal elite. In the tradition of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, the Sundance-award winning director and co-founder of Guerrilla News Network, hits the road and travels from the front lines of the Iraq War, through the wasteland of the former communist Eastern bloc, into a coke-dusted sex party of Britain’s intellectual elite, and into the minds of America’s most influential liberal figures.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 29th, 2007.