The Libertarianism Of Christopher Hitchens

in Philosophy by
   

Before his death, Christopher Hitchens recoiled from claims by both conservatives and his former comrades on the Left that he had moved rightward because of his support for The War On Terror. Hitchens countered that he still found the Vietcong “heroic,” still found Che Guevera an admirable figure, and still described himself as “a Marxist:

“I still think like a Marxist in many ways. I think the materialist conception of history is valid. I consider myself a very conservative Marxist”.

He still regarded Lenin and Trotsky “as great men,” examining the foreign policy record of Fidel Castro, he praised the regime for fighting a battle with South Africa. The Bush administration, whose foreign policy he supported, earned his scorn on their domestic policies, which, with its cronyism with monopoly capitalists, he likened to a “banana republic.”

But alongside these statements, a libertarianism was becoming apparent, not that he didn’t try to fight it by salvaging as much of his older allegiances as he could. No longer describing himself as a socialist, he still tried to show Karl Marx in a positive light by highlighting his admiration for capitalism. He asserted that toward the end of Trotsky’s life the exiled Bolshevik was concluding that communism had failed. He praised George Orwell, who he asserted was “conservative in many things but not politics,” for keeping libertarianism alive when Tories were praising Stalin and exhibiting a “penis envy” for the dictator’s ability to kill off his opposition. His support for the War On Terror was based on a belief that “a top-down revolution was occurring” from the administration. When an angry Islamic mob in Lebanon beat him up for graffitiing a pro-terrorist poster, Hitchens returned to the scene flanked by Lebanese socialists.

Although he found libertarians “ahistorical” in their obsessive fears “about the over-mighty state [rather] than the unaccountable corporation,” he nevertheless praised the free-market proponent Milton Friedman, who, as a member of Nixon’s cabinet, quietly ended the draft while Hitchens and his comrades were fist-clenching in the streets. Such an action moved him toward an appreciation of the libertarian point of view. In one of his last columns he chastised liberals for not accepting that “a government that can give you everything can also take it away.” Alongside his view of Lenin as a “great man,” he admitted that the Bolshevik leader’s “teleological socialism was the most toxic of foes.”

In a sense, Hitchens was right in his Marxian view that history moved in a certain direction. His movement from Trotskyite to cautious libertarian was a natural journey. As early as 1988, he was denouncing Fidel Castro’s hateful censorship campaign, which banned copies of Mikhail Gorbachev’s writings (its enforcers even going so far as to make one of the readers eat one of the Soviet leader’s books). His atheism, always present, made his support for The War on Terror against “Islamo fascism” inevitable. He sheltered and was vocally supportive of Salman Rushdie, whose Satanic Verses earned him a “fatwah” from Islamic terrorist groups. In the 1990s, he included Islam as one of the three great theocratic threats in the world.

Regarding Orwell, conservative pundits assert that the writer’s disgust with the authoritarianism inherent in socialism would have moved him right had he lived past 1950. Could such a claim be made with Hitchens? Perhaps. As evidenced by his writings, he was in a desperate struggle to reconcile his libertarianism with his clinging socialists views. Little by little, his concern for the individual was chipping away at his leftism. He could no longer defend teleological socialism, could no longer support the imperialist claims lodged against US foreign policy by his former comrades, and most important of all, he could find value in efforts by libertarians to curb intrusive state power.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.