There is no denying Christopher Hitchens’s skill as a public figure: he is seldom at a loss for words, sometimes entertaining, and occasionally even right. But he keeps getting important things wrong because, throughout his political wanderings, there persists a strange loyalty to an obscure bloodthirsty revolutionary and to the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution. For Hitchens—now honored throughout the neoconservative Right—remains what he has been throughout his public life, a disciple of Leon Trotsky and a talented writer and polemicist—perhaps the most talented polemicist the Bolshevik tradition has produced in the West.
Given Hitchens’s current role as a neocon fellow traveler, it is instructive (not to mention fun) to recall with whom he used to travel. When the United States was locked in a mortal struggle with Soviet Communism, Hitchens was at best AWOL, at worst pulling for the other team. From his safe post at The New Statesman and later The Nation, Hitchens opposed every effort to defeat Communism—including the defense of South Vietnam, the deployment of cruise missiles and Pershing missiles in Europe, the invasion of Grenada, American support for the Contras, and Reagan’s military buildup. Hitchens can be sensitive about his past—he is quite angry with his brother Peter for letting us know that Christopher used to joke about not caring “if the Red Army waters its horses in Hendon”—but there can be no doubt where Hitchens stood during the Cold War. He was faithfully following Leon Trotsky, who wrote in 1939, “the defense of the USSR coincides for us with the preparation of world revolution.”
Rather than worrying about Soviet Communism, Hitchens spent his Nation years fighting against what he called “a regime of crime and corruption in the White House. … necessitated by a war on revolution overseas and on democracy at home.” This description—typical of Hitchens’s invective against Ronald Reagan—was contained in a fawning letter to “Comrade Ramirez,” a functionary of the Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua. Hitchens unbosomed that, far from hoping for an American victory in the Cold War, he was hoping for a “socialist renewal in the Soviet Union.” Hitchens also told his friend in Managua, “It is quite likely that historians will record this unhappy period not as an age of Reagan at all, but as a footnote to the age of Mikhail Gorbachev.”
Elsewhere, Hitchens turned out lines worthy of Soviet Life, such as this observation from a pre-invasion visit to the budding Communist dictatorship in Grenada: “The general enthusiasm, the internationalism and the determination of the Grenadan people is an inspiring thing to witness.”
Then there was the column Hitchens wrote in 1982, blasting anti-Communists for talking about “appeasement” and “Finlandization.” In the midst of Hitchens’s long-winded explanation of why these were “bogus ideological words” and their use was “an insult—and not only to Finland,” comes a plangent reminder of the place Hitchens was happy to call home during the Cold War: an advertisement enticing readers to “spend Your Vacation with The Nation and Cruise Up the Volga.” The CPUSA was not listed as a sponsor, but that would probably have been redundant for a trip also sponsored by the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
More insight into Hitchens’s long love affair with Bolshevism came with the publication in 2002 of his close friend Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread, a masterful account of the mass murder with which the Bolsheviks busied themselves after seizing power in October 1917. Hitchens told Amis, “Lenin was … a great man” and implored him not to “fall for moral equivalence.” What Hitchens warned against was not viewing the West as equivalent to the USSR (a view generally attacked at The Nation only by those asserting straightforward Soviet superiority), but a belief that Soviet Communism could legitimately be compared to its (slightly less) murderous rival, Nazism.
It is true that, even as Trotsky had criticized Stalin, Hitchens felt free to criticize the USSR occasionally at The Nation—though generally without the venom reserved for the “Christian bigots” and “thwarted militarists” Hitchens saw in the “Reagan junta,” the “fascists” allied with the United States against Communism, and such obvious evildoers as Mother Teresa. But Hitchens, still following Trotsky, generally coupled these criticisms with attacks on the West or on anti-Communists, as in a 1986 piece on Chernobyl, where he devoted almost all his space to describing “two cases of potential and actual nuclear irradiation that were visited on unsuspecting peoples by NATO governments.” And after Solidarity had been outlawed and Lech Walesa imprisoned, Hitchens participated in a Nation forum on Communism and Poland in which—to his credit—he wrote that it was legitimate to defend the “Polish workers movement,” but also fretted about “the Manichaean anti-Communism of the bad old days,” wished that Walesa had denounced Pinochet, and rebuked Susan Sontag for saying that Communism was akin to fascism and that the reliably anti-Communist Readers’ Digest had done a better job of informing its readers of the realities of Communism than had The Nation or The New Statesman—coincidentally (or not) Hitchens’s journalistic homes during the Cold War.
Hitchens also asserted that most of the Left did not have a problem with Poland, ignoring the fatuousness of the other contributors to the forum and his own magazine, which wanted to “transcend the hand-wringing platitudes of the Reagan Administration and to create some distance between radical Americans and the evident hypocrisy of ‘Let Poland Be Poland.’” Hitchens, too, had distinct limits to his sympathy for the Poles: the next time Hitchens managed to write about Poland in The Nation, in January 1983, it was to mock the Poles, including John Paul II and Lech Walesa, for their religious beliefs. While the world watched the courage of Catholic Poland with admiration, Hitchens sneered. There is a reason streets in Poland are being named after Ronald Reagan and not writers for The Nation.
Hitchens has never apologized for his Trotskyism. As he told British writer Johann Hari in October 2004, “I don’t regret anything. … [The socialist movement’s] achievements were real, and I’m glad I was a part of it.” And in the July/August 2004 issue of The Atlantic, Hitchens wrote a hagiographic essay about a figure whom he claimed “always was … a prophetic moralist.” Hitchens was not writing about Mother Teresa or John Paul II, but about Leon Trotsky—a man who was an active participant in and apologist for Lenin’s Red Terror, the inventor of the “blocking units” that would gun down Russian troops foolish enough to defy the commissars by retreating, and the author of such witty aphorisms as “We must rid ourselves once and for all of the Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of human life.”
Hitchens also took Amis to task for Koba the Dread in The Atlantic, criticizing him for suggesting the dreaded moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Communists and for wondering if the right side won the Russian Civil War. Hitchens’s dogged determination to defend Lenin shows that he is, at heart, as intense a believer as any radical Islamist. After all, it was one thing to believe in 1917 that the Bolsheviks might be better than the Romanovs; it is quite another to believe that still today, tens of millions of corpses later.
Amis had also made the mistake, in a letter to Hitchens, of urging his friend to turn his back on Trotsky because Hitchens’s “prophetic moralist” was really a “nun-killer.” Amis should have realized that an appeal based on sympathy for nuns was hardly the way to his friend’s heart, and Hitchens responded by mocking Amis for having a “special horror of Bolshevik anti-clericalism.” What Amis has a “special horror of” is eloquently described in his book: a regime that killed 2,691 priests, 1,962 monks, and 3,447 nuns of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1922 alone. None of this bloodshed bothers Hitchens, who has recently written that “Secularism … only became thinkable after several wars and revolutions had ruthlessly smashed the hold of the clergy on the state.” Since the American Revolution did not produce a single executed clergyman, Hitchens is here singing the praises of the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks.
Indeed, nothing shows Hitchens’s continuing fidelity to the Bolshevik ideal more than his hatred for religion. He told the Guardian on May 31, 2005, “I can’t stand anyone who believes in God, who invokes the divinity … I mean, that to me is a horrible, repulsive thing.” But Hitchens is by no means equal in his contempt for religions. He has written favorably of Judaism and described Islam as having been a “civilizing and creative force in many societies.” Hitchens has no such kind words for Christianity, especially as manifested in the Roman Catholic Church. This is hardly surprising: the Roman Catholic Church was Bolshevism’s most consistent and successful adversary, beginning with the 1920 defense of Warsaw from Trotsky’s Red Army, when the future Pius XI, in Norman Davies’s words, “stood on the ramparts of Radzymin and cursed the advancing hordes of Antichrist in person” and the Polish Army—dismissed by Trotsky as being “steeped in priests’ lies”—prevented the Red Army from watering its horses anywhere near Hendon.
A straightforward description of all Hitchens’s anti-Catholic outbursts would fill every page in this magazine—he recently argued, in essence, that Judge Roberts should not be confirmed to the Supreme Court because he is Catholic—but his most disgusting, and revealing, anti-Catholic spasm was his reaction to the death of John Paul II, a man he dismissed as “an elderly and querulous celibate, who came too late and who stayed too long.”
Speaking ill of the dead is a Hitchens trademark, with Mother Teresa, Bob Hope, and Ronald Reagan—whom Hitchens described as “dumb as a stump” and a “cruel and stupid lizard”—each rating a bilious sendoff. But John Paul II rated two. Hitchens blamed the pope for such wide-ranging evils as the “enslavement of the Middle East” and “the millions who will die needlessly from AIDS,” a disease whose sexual transmission would cease if Catholic teaching were followed. Hitchens also blasted John Paul for harboring Cardinal Law from justice, ignoring the fact that Cardinal Law was never convicted of any crime or even indicted because, as the prosecutor told the Boston Globe, “there was no intent that we have found to assist in any way in criminal acts.”
Hitchens also criticized the pope for opposing the First Gulf War, writing, “I have never read any deployment of Augustinian argument … that would not qualify it as a just war.” Yet at the time, Hitchens denounced the First Gulf War as a “contrived war” of “discreditable origins,” blamed the United States for “the infliction of a Dresden on the Iraqi people,” and looked forward to “fresh Augustinian tautologies from our churchmen about proportionality in a just war.”
But the most repellent aspect of Hitchens’s diatribes was the sly way he sought to minimize John Paul’s role in the transformation of Eastern Europe, implying that the credit belonged to “the Polish workers” and “Warsaw’s dissident intellectuals … who thought of Cardinal Glemp … as one of their main enemies.” The reality of Poland is deeply embarrassing to someone who views the world as Hitchens does, which is why he indulges in fantasies about nameless “workers” and secular intellectuals battling evil Catholics.
The bare facts are these: the institution in Poland that gave dissidents, even secular intellectuals, the civic space to operate during the years of Soviet rule was the Catholic Church. The “Polish workers” who began the revolt that ended up toppling the Soviet Union were the workers at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, who during their historic strike decorated the main gate of the shipyard with precisely two pictures—one of John Paul II, one of Our Lady of Czestochowa. (Leon Trotsky was nowhere in sight.) The leader of those workers was Lech Walesa, who posed in his first photograph after the strike under a crucifix, who afterwards customarily wore an icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa on his lapel, who signed the Gdansk agreement ending the strike with a souvenir pen bearing the likeness of John Paul II, and who left his Nobel Peace Prize as a votive offering at the Jasna Gora monastery where the famous icon of Our Lady is found. All of these symbolic gestures were carefully considered and show the profoundly Catholic nature of the peaceful Polish revolt that ended up discrediting Bolshevism in both its Stalinist and Trotskyist variants. Regardless of their views on other issues, Poles credit John Paul’s epochal 1979 visit with inspiring all that followed. Indeed, the dissident publication Robotnik—– associated with the sort of intellectuals Hitchens wants to credit instead of the pope—wrote the epitaph for Soviet Communism just 10 days after John Paul’s triumphant Mass in Krakow before the largest gathering in Polish history, in words that Hitchens would never write, or even acknowledge having been written: “Pathetically silent was the ideology created without God and against God.”
So where does this lover of Trotsky and hater of God, this despiser of religion and tradition and devotee of “permanent revolution,” this anti-Catholic bigot and reviler of Reagan and John Paul, now find an ideological home? Among the neoconservatives, naturally. As Hitchens told Johann Hari in the same interview where he said “I don’t regret anything,” he admires Paul Wolfowitz, whom he described as a “real bleeding heart.” According to Hari, Hitchens sees neoconservatism as a “distinctively new strain of thought, preached by ex-leftists, who believed in using US power to spread democracy.” Hari also wrote that Hitchens believes that if neoconservatism “can become dominant within the Republican Party, it can turn US power into a revolutionary force.” Barry Didcock came to a similar conclusion in the June 5, 2005 Sunday Herald after interviewing Hitchens: “The way Hitchens tells it, he began to realize, as the 1990s wore on, that US force could and should be used to fight what he saw as the forces of fascism.” Hitchens still wants world revolution; the only difference is that now he sees us Americans as perfectly placed to do the fighting and the dying needed to achieve his Trotskyist dream.
As both the Hari and Didcock interviews make clear, Hitchens was able to overcome his past squeamishness about American military force not because America is threatened, but because the threat now comes from men who believe in Allah rather than Marx. Didcock notes, “the origins of [Hitchens’s] position lie in his long-held distaste for religion,” and Hitchens told Hari, “The United States was attacked by theocratic fascists who represent all the most reactionary elements on earth. … However bad the American Empire has been, it is not as bad as this.” Hitchens also wrote—in the same column in which he extolled the priest-killing potency of the French and Russian Revolutions—that “George Bush may subjectively be a Christian, but he—and the US armed forces—have objectively done more for secularism than the whole of the American agnostic community combined and doubled.” Hitchens’s entire politics is motivated by his hatred of religion and tradition; he’d be just as happy bombing St. Peter’s as the Taliban.
Needless to say, Hitchens’s views have nothing to do with American conservatism or even American patriotism, which sees America as a real country and a real place, not as a template onto which foreigners project their ideological fantasies. None of the Founders wanted to use American power to bring about world revolution, nor did they believe in wasting American blood and treasure in grandiose ideological crusades. Neither did Ronald Reagan. While effusive in his praise for the neocons, Hitchens told Hari that he would never join “the Buchanan-Reagan right.”
For their part, the neocons have warmly embraced Hitchens. His writing is welcomed at The Weekly Standard, which also gave a glowing review to his latest book, and at FrontPageMag.com, which has given him three sycophantic interviews and describes him as “one of the most prominent political and cultural essayists of our time.” Regulars at National Review Online praise and link to Hitchens’s work, and David Frum has boasted there of his friendship with Hitchens. Recently, Hitchens was even allowed to post in NRO’s Corner to respond to Ramesh Ponnuru’s flaccid criticism of his Catholic-bashing piece on Judge Roberts. (Ponnuru agreed that he found Hitchens’s outbursts on the pope “bracing,” but he drew the line when Hitchens used his anti-Catholicism against the Bush administration.) NRO has hardly been as accommodating to any of the traditional conservatives its writers have smeared.
The irony, of course, is that Hitchens has hardly cast his lot with the “Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom” school of conservatism. The neocons prattle on endlessly about “moral clarity” and display a fondness for ideological purges but have never been anything but indulgent toward Hitchens. They have not criticized his Bolshevism or his hatred of religion. In fact, one of the Hitchens columns Frum praised at NRO described the Catholic Church as “foolish” and Opus Dei as a “sinister cult organization.” Let us not even pause to consider what Frum would have done if some paleoconservative had written a glowing essay describing Rudolf Hess as a “prophetic moralist”: whole forests would need to be felled to print his denunciations of the miscreant.
What the mutual embrace of Hitchens and the neocons tells us is that Hitchens’s assessment of neoconservatism is essentially correct: the regnant force in American conservatism today is warmed-over Trotskyism, which views America merely as the embodiment of the ideology of global revolution. This is, admittedly, a depressing conclusion. But there is hope. Hitchens spent the first half of his ideological career riding a dying horse. He may have just started riding another one.
Tom Piatak writes from Cleveland, Ohio.