By Ben Burgis
December 24, 2021
Christopher Hitchens died 10 years ago this month. Many young leftists remember “Hitch,” if at all, as a militant atheist who alternated between debating pastors on the existence of God and defending the war in Iraq.
The first book with his name on the cover was a collection of essays by Marx and Engels on the Paris Commune. It came out in 1971, on the Commune’s hundredth anniversary, and Hitchens wrote the introduction. Exactly 30 years later, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, he admitted to himself and his readers that he’d finally given up hope on the socialist future he’d long advocated. In the decades between, he regularly surprised people who called in during his C-SPAN appearances to denounce him as a dangerous “liberal.” He’d explain that the label offended him—and not for the reason they might think.
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Why Christopher Hitchens Still Matters
Christopher Hitchens was an intellectual with an astonishing breadth and depth of knowledge of politics, literature, philosophy and culture—as well as a magnificent writer with a passion for the English language. He was also a captivating orator who spoke with fluency, panache and intellectual power, and a pugilistic debater unafraid to defend his opinions “against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time.”
Born in 1949, for most of his life Hitchens was a darling of the Anglo-American left. He opposed the Vietnam War, supported the civil unrest in France in 1968, and championed anti-colonial liberation movements across the world. As a teenager in 1967, he was recruited by the veteran Trotskyist Pete Sedgwick into an unorthodox, anti-Stalinist, Trotskyist group called International Socialists (UK), which advocated opposing communist as well as capitalist states. Although this group later evolved into the current—and awful—British Socialist Workers Party, Hitchens joined it during a much more intellectually dynamic period, when it was just as influenced by the early twentieth-century Marxist Rosa Luxemburg as by Leon Trotsky. He maintained throughout his life an intellectual kinship with some of its political views, particularly anti-Stalinist socialism (the belief that one could be a Marxist and still oppose the Soviet Union’s version of communism). He was influenced by prominent Marxist dissidents such as George Orwell, Hal Draper, Victor Serge, C. L. R. James, Sylvia Pankhurst and Max Shachtman. For decades, many leftists felt proud to count him among their ranks.
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Is Christopher Hitchens Still Worth Reading?
An interview with Ben Burgis about his upcoming book: “Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, Where He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.”
13 October 2021
Ben Burgis is the author of a number of books, including Give Them an Argument, Canceling Comedians While the World Burns, and the author of the upcoming book, Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters, now available for pre-order. He is a columnist for Jacobin and the host of the Give Them An Argument podcast and YouTube show. He recently spoke with Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson about the legacy of Hitchens and what the left can learn from Hitchens’ successes and failures as a public intellectual. The conversation has been condensed and edited for grammar and clarity.
Robinson The book you’ve written now has an unusual choice of subject. It’s on a public intellectual who has been dead for a decade, whose central contributions to the discourse were made many years ago, and whose legacy is, I think, quite unclear.
Burgis For sure.
Robinson It’s on Christopher Hitchens. And at first when I saw you were writing a book about Christopher Hitchens, I thought, “Why now?” Why pick Christopher Hitchens, of all people? And then, as I thought “it’s actually quite interesting that Ben’s picked Hitchens,” because I think you and I probably have a similar relationship to this guy.
Burgis Mm, hmm.
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