Hitchens on trial: Islam, religion and the left

Richard Seymour’s latest book Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens exposes one of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the last 30 years.

As a prolific journalist and author, Hitchens impressed readers with stylish commentary on a wide range of cultural, political and philosophical topics. These talents were however placed in the service of right-wing politics.

Most famously, Hitchens became not only an apologist for George W Bush’s war in Iraq, but a war-enthusiast, advocating American Empire during one of the most bloody imperialist adventures since the Vietnam war. In books such as God Is Not Great, Hitchens provided intellectual legitimacy for anti-Muslim racism and the war on terror.

In exposing both the intellectual sloppiness and flimsiness of Hitchens’s views, as well as the wider contradictions that underpinned his life, Seymour does a great service. In only 134 pages, he manages to cover Hitchens’s career (and careerism) including his early cultural and political life, such as his enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher. Another section highlights Hitchens’s defence of Empire literature, like Rudyard Kipling’s canonical poem, The White Man’s Burden, and the wider Western literary canon from academic criticism that challenged its racism and support for imperialism.

The most piercing section is the critique of Hitchens’s views on religion. Hitchens argued that modern conflicts from Northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine, to the Iraq war could be explained through the simple phrase, “religion poisons everything”. This crude idea was shared by “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins whose intolerance of religion gained considerable currency after 9/11.

Hitchens also misappropriated radical thinkers to justify his reactionary positions. Hitchens’s more theoretical polemics against religion were often supported by lengthy quotes from Karl Marx. But he completely distorted the actual meaning and views of Marx on religion.

Marxism and religion

Religion and religious movements are always expressions of real class or material interests, not simply a product of irrational ideas. Religion has been a vehicle for a variety of political movements seeking very different ends. Islam in the last 30 years has expressed the opposition to imperialism in the Middle East, and the poverty and humiliation this has caused. Christianity was used to bolster the US civil rights movement in the 1960s by pastors like Martin Luther King. Hitchens’s views on religion completely ignore this.

They also obscure the role of other actors in creating conflict. It was Britain’s desire to colonise Northern Ireland that created the divisions between Catholics and Protestants. Western imperialist interests were behind both the creation of Israel, as a colonial settler state in Palestine, and the maintenance of its overwhelming military superiority over the nearby Arab states.

In the case of Iraq, Hitchens’s theory ignores that resistance to US occupation comprised other forces beyond religious organisations, such as secular Baathists, and was driven by opposition to western plunder and control of the country. US occupation forces also played a conscious game of divide and rule, setting Sunnis, Shias and Kurds against one another, in order to maintain control.

Hitchens’s gross simplifications about the role of religion were the result of his political commitment to the militarised US nation-state as a defender of progress and democracy.

In accepting this, Hitchens had to deny that imperialism and US intervention were the problem and look elsewhere for answers. Religion offered a convenient scapegoat. It was this political commitment that fuelled Hitchens’s diatribes to “bomb the shit out of them” in Iraq.

Moving to the right

One of the wider aims of Unhitched is to explain the broader phenomenon of left-wing figures who have shifted away from radical anti-capitalist politics. After all, Hitchens gained notoriety as an unorthodox intellectual because he started on the left. Initially a member of the British Labor Party, until expelled for activism against the Vietnam war, then briefly a member of the forerunner to the British Socialist Workers Party, Hitchens identified with the radical upsurge of the 1960s. But when he moved away from the left, he did so whilst professing a sustained commitment to left-wing principles. This led to him being nicknamed “Hypocritchens”.

But conservative sympathies did not simply replace his allegiance to the left, but were a feature even of his early political life. His aspirational goals of dining with the rich and powerful, a product of his middle-class background, became more pronounced and played a larger role in his later life. Seymour argues that, “Hitchens’s story was, then, not exactly that of noble mind overthrown…Rather, the elements of his peculiar political personality were displaced, shaken by events, and recomposed in a new articulation that leaned heavily on the right.”

The book’s inflated language, witness the above quote, is annoying and unnecessary. This will put off readers and limit the accessibility of a sorely needed demolition of this vile individual.

By Jasmine Ali

Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens
By Richard Seymour
Verso, $22.95

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