Why Hitchens Matters

Ian Williams

What are you looking at?
Christopher Hitchens explains Why Orwell Matters, and does so with feeling. One can see that he identifies strongly with his countryman, the socialist daring to stand up against doublethink and prepared to think and speak thoughtcrime against the orthodox. The identification is not totally misplaced. The would-be Big Brothers on the left have indeed vilified Hitchens for several years now for daring to question the lines they laid down on. The interesting question, made even more topical by his recent defection from The Nation, is whether Hitchens himself has broken under this intellectual torture and deserted the cause of a humane and democratic socialism.

An earlier generation on the left used Israel as their excuse to defect and become neoconservative: There are some disturbing indications that Hitchens’ disillusion with some of the left has him veering toward Israel, from his recent comments that one of the reasons for supporting the Bush drang nach Baghdad is that it would cut off support for some of the more thuggish elements around Arafat. This may be true, but the most thuggish elements around Arafat at the moment are Sharon and his ilk.

In 1984, Goldstein’s heretical text read: “In the general hardening of outlook that set in round about 1930, practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years—imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and deportation of whole populations—not only became common again, but tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.”

Orwell wrote this in the aftermath of Spain, Manchuria and World War II, and while Stalin continued to use the techniques he had perfected at home to seize Eastern Europe. The horrifying thing about the turn of the millennium is that there are still apologists for all these practices and more.

They span the whole traditional political spectrum. On the establishment side, there has been toleration for death squads in Central and Latin America; on the left, apologetics for ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and users of poison gas in Iraq. The Khmer Rouge found support from both the left and the right as a stick to beat the Soviets and Vietnamese; while recently both right isolationists and alleged left anti-imperialists found common cause in defending Slobodan Milosevic.

Orwell would have berated them all— just as Hitchens has honorably done, too, although with an increasing intemperance that hints at a shared polemical heritage with his detractors.


On reading Hitchens’ defense, my first reaction was almost “why bother,” since the direction and motivation of Orwell’s detractors is so clear. In any event, Hitchens correctly shows that Orwell matters because he was so accurate in his depiction of so many of the people who are now his detractors and, one regrets to say, even some who would see themselves as his supporters.

After the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party confirmed what Orwell and others had said about Stalin, leading British Communist theoretician R. Palme Dutt was asked why he had not mentioned these details in his constant praise of the alleged socialism of the USSR. “I never said there were no spots on the sun,” he replied.

You can see why such people hate Orwell for depicting just how in reality the sun was eclipsed with mass terror. He was never forgiven for being so accurate about the nature of totalitarianism even when it donned a red fig leaf. Hitchens robustly defends the “List,” a catalogue of people who Orwell thought were not suitable writers to be employed by a British Social Democratic government agency, which brought some of the Big Fraternity to apoplexy.

If anything, Hitchens understates the defense here. Orwell escaped from Spain with the KGB on his tail; other independent socialists were not so lucky. Stalin was an ally of Hitler for two years of war, during which German Communists and socialists met their end. Victory in Eastern Europe led to a purge of socialists across the region—and people are angry that Orwell compiled a list of fellow travelers, most of whom would, on the evidence of their previous work, have found excuses for his liquidation if he had been late leaving Spain!

Indeed, there are portions of the book where one feels the need to spring to the defense of Orwell against Hitchens, such as the persistent insinuation that Orwell was a Trotskyist, whether he knew it or not, and that his ire was reserved for “Stalinism.” In fact, Orwell called it “Communism” and, as Hitchens himself admits, saw the line of succession from Lenin and Trotsky to Stalin. In Animal Farm, Lenin and Trotsky are rolled into one exiled pig for just that reason. Hitchens quotes Orwell as feeling that “something like” the purges was “implicit in Bolshevist rule.”

There is a conflict here between Hitchens’ intellectual honesty and his nostalgia for Trotsky, whose record while in power in the Soviet Union showed no signs of overly deep attachment to democracy or human rights. Hitchens’ introduction claims that the three great subjects of the 20th century were fascism, imperialism and “Stalinism.” In fact, looking at Orwell’s work, the one subject is totalitarianism, which encompasses clogged rivers in Rwanda, death squads in Central America—and Leninism in all its forms.


But why go on about Trotskyism in 57 varieties? Well, there are two reasons. One is that I suspect Hitchens’ residual adherence to it has distorted some of his analysis of where Orwell stands in the socialist tradition. While he establishes firmly that Orwell is in that tradition, and remained so until he died, Hitchens underestimates the homegrown influences on Orwell. Throughout the ’30s, the large cooperative movement, and even some of the unions in Britain, considered the dangers of state control and centralization before Hayek ever put pen to paper on the subject.

Hitchens mentions the Independent Labour Party, which was a Marxist-leaning but non-Leninist body with its own traditions of activism and militancy. It was Orwell’s political home until it and he rejoined the Labour Party, which he supported even in government. It is fashionable among many on the American left to mock the achievements of British Labour. But when the American left builds large unions committed to socialism, has legislated universal health care, pretty much free education at all levels, and the type of social benefits that remain in Britain even after Thatcher, maybe their mockery will have more substance.

The other reason for dwelling on Hitchens’ roots has nothing to do with Orwell. In the Troskyist/Leninist milieu where Hitchens has spent so many years, the polemical approach takes no prisoners. Luckily, Trotsky’s followers have not had the power of life and death for some time. The reason for that is the same reason we should rejoice that it is so. The concept of “thoughtcrime” in active use has meant that expulsions or splits afflict any section of the Fourth International whose membership looms much above the high three figures. Every week is “Hate Week” in the sects.

In his enjoyable and generally accurate literary eviscerations of the likes of Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa, Hitchens shows few signs of human sympathy. This is most un-Orwellian. We almost like O’Brien in 1984, and we feel for the apparatchiks who do Big Brother’s work. Hitchens himself shows that Orwell went out of his way to defend and maintain friendly relations with people he disagreed with, sometimes profoundly.

My worry is that Hitchens’ time in the Fourth International dimension has affected his sense of relativity so that the constant ad-hominem attacks on him, which are indeed often of the specious sort leveled at Orwell, may have driven him into a political form of “synecdochism”—taking the part for the whole. The would-be Big Brotherhood who have reviled him may manufacture more vitriol than the real left, but they do not represent it. I suspect that a majority of Nation readers might actually agree with him most of the time.

Hitchens is right about the nature of the Iraqi regime, but I’d like to see a little more ambivalence from him about signing up for the obsessive crusade against it. Quite what motivates the Bush hawks’ quasi-theological obsession with Iraq is a mystery to most observers—but looking at the personnel, from Sharon to Rumsfeld, surely no one believes that concern for the Iraqi people or the spread of democracy is one of their motives.

I invite Hitchens to read his own book, where he praises Orwell for his realization that there was no facile analogy with appeasement when he resisted suggestions for a quick war against Stalin’s Russia. With Animal Farm already out, and 1984 in preparation, he points out that Orwell opposed what could have been a successful—if bloody—attempt to overthrow a tyrannical evil regime guilty of monstrous crimes against its own people and its neighbors.

The left needs contrarians: It doesn’t need neo-neocons while the original breed have so much power in the White House. So I hope Hitchens sticks around. Orwell did.

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Ian Williams is the author of Deserter: Bush’s War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past, now available from Nation Books.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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