Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011): the Orwell of his generation? by Prof John Rodden

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011): the Orwell of his generation? by John Rodden

[Christopher] Hitchens began to ascend to his present level of international visibility in September 2001, when he defiantly – and soon definitively – parted ideological company with the Left. Here again, observers have been quick to draw a comparison with Orwell. Just as Orwell became a national figure once he equated Stalinism with rule by pigs in his best-selling beast fable, Animal Farm, so too did Hitchens rise to prominence for his outspoken, rhetorically incisive criticism of the Left following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Supporting the administration of George W Bush, Hitchens defended Bush’s “war against terrorism” (Hitchens branded the enemy as “Islamo-fascism”) and condemned the Left for opposing military intervention to halt terrorists and tyrants such as Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Hitchens’s positions rankled many socialists (Alexander Cockburn accused him of becoming “just another conservative porker”) and the ensuing row ultimately led Hitchens to reign his post as a contributing editor and regular columnist with the Nation….

Of course, Orwell was not alone among radicals in his early condemnation of Soviet communism and his “Left patriot” stance in the 1930s – nor was Hitchens the only leftist to advocate strong military measures against bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda and Saddam’s Iraq. But Hitchens and Orwell expressed themselves unequivocally and in arresting phrases that commanded attention and provoked bitter quarrels….

While Hitchens’s break with the Nation triggered a new round of criticism from the Left, liberals and centrists who were reformulating their political stances leapt to his defense. Some allies immediately compared Hitchens to Orwell – long before the publication in late 2002 of his book Orwell’s Victory (American title: Why Orwell Matters). For example, former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan made the Orwell connection explicit. A fellow British expatriate also residing in the United States and bearing complicated ideological coordinates, Sullivan wrote in The Times of London: “[L]ike Orwell, he quit. Not for the Right, not for social status, not for the 15 minutes of infamy every turncoat gets. He quit for the possibility of thinking outside any political loyalties at a time when such loyalties are as trivial as they are corrupting. And one day, the Left will come to realise his point.” Going several steps further than Sullivan, Ron Rosenbaum of the New York Observer, commenting on Hitchens’s support for the war in Afghanistan, referred to him as “a George Orwell for our time”.

Is he? Is Christopher Hitchens the Orwell of his generation, of the ageing New Left, the baby boom generation that came of age in the 1960s – and that, arguably, came to political maturity after 9/11? Is he “the (Anglo-)American Orwell” of our day? (Hitchens, whose wife and daughter are American citizens, acquired American citizenship in April 2007.) There are in fact some broad similarities: Both Orwell and Hitchens are public school graduates and brilliant prose stylists. Like Orwell, Hitchens is first a moralist and second a political and cultural critic. For instance, like Orwell, Hitchens – though much less fervently (or publicly) – has reservations about abortion and contraception. Moreover, Orwell was, and remained to his death, a self-avowed man of the Left and anti-Stalinist, as well as an uncompromising atheist, an anti-imperialist, and an anti-Zionist. In each of these respects, Hitchens can be said to resemble Orwell, even though Hitchens has abandoned the self-description “socialist” (though not “leftist”). What remains disputable, however, is whether the ex-Trotskyist Hitchens – who even today harbors not only lingering affection but also guarded admiration for Trotsky (the “Old Man”) – has ever been, like Orwell, an anti-communist (as opposed to being merely an anti-Stalinist). Of course, the obvious literary differences also bear noting; unlike Orwell, Hitchens is no novelist or fabulist; he limits himself to journalism, reportage, and essays. But within those non-fiction limits, his productivity and range of topics easily match, if not exceed, that of Orwell.

Not surprisingly, Hitchens’s ex-comrades on the Left blanch at the thought of likening him to Orwell. Quite apart from any comparison according to genre or subject matter, they consider Hitchens, at least since September 2001, no “leftist” or radical whatsoever. To them, his recent trajectory represents a rightward lurch far removed from Orwell’s “critic within the Left” stance. Moreover, they hold that simply in terms of temperament and class attitude, Hitchens lacks Orwell’s human warmth and deep feeling for the common man. Vilified as an ex-leftist, renegade, turncoat, and traitor ever since his vocal support for the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002-2003, Hitchens’s numerous radical critics view him not as “Orwell’s successor” but rather as Paul Johnson’s successor. (Johnson is the ex-leftist editor of the New Statesman who has turned sharply rightward, becoming a leading conservative intellectual and Tory pundit).

My own judgement is that Hitchens is a radical who possesses what Conor Cruise O’Brien called Orwell’s “Tory growl”. His contrariness resembles Orwell’s so-called antinomianism – and Hitchens is equally hard to place ideologically. For example, he writes in Letters to a Young Contrarian: “I have not, since you asked, abandoned all the tenets of the Left. I still find that the material conception of history has not been surpassed as a means of analyzing matters; I still think that there are opposing class interests; I still think that the monopoly of capitalism can and should be distinguished from the free market and that it had certain fatal tendencies in both the short and long term.”

An extract from “Fellow Contrarians? Or “The (Anglo-)American Orwell””, from The Unexamined Orwell, by John Rodden, published by University of Texas Press, 2011

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