Journalist Matt Johnson argues that Christopher Hitchens’s legacy of universal liberal values can save liberalism from its current wrong turn.
Christopher Hitchens was an ardent defender of free speech, as well as a champion of universal liberal values. Drawing inspiration from George Orwell’s commitment to truth and free expression, Hitchens believed in the enduring power of Enlightenment values and was an avowed internationalist.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, journalist Matt Johnson discusses his new book, How Hitchens Can Save the Left, which argues that Hitchens’s legacy has been unfairly maligned by some on the far Left due to his support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to Johnson, Hitchens believed that free speech, individual rights, and other fundamental liberal values were under threat across the democratic world. Additionally, according to Johnson, Hitchens saw the rise of identity politics and the perception that liberal democracies are institutionally racist, exploitative, and imperialistic, which led some on the Left to abandon the universalist principles that underpinned liberalism from its inception.
Johnson argues that Hitchens’s message of universal Enlightenment principles is more important than ever and could help save liberalism from its current malaise. By embracing Hitchens’s legacy, Johnson contends that the Left can avoid the pitfalls of identity politics and return to its roots as a defender of individual rights and freedoms.
Channeling Hitchens, Johnson describes how liberals can resist the emerging orthodoxies on both the Left and the Right, and reconstruct a liberalism that is true to its foundational principles.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. At what point did liberalism shift from valuing individual liberty, rationality, reason, and equality to prioritizing wokeness, identity politics, political correctness, and collective happiness? It seems that in the process, we’ve lost sight of the enlightenment values that underpin true liberalism.
Certainly growing out of the enlightenment, true liberalism prioritized individual freedoms and the right to pursue individual happiness while respecting the rights of others. This was the true passion of the late Christopher Hitchens, a unique and influential intellectual voice of our time. Hitchens championed universal liberal values and, most vociferously, the freedom to speak and write openly.
He was an internationalist who believed that all people should have the right to escape the arbitrary constraints of tribe, faith, and, yes, even of nation. In his new book, How Hitchens Can Save the Left, my guest, Matt Johnson, argues that Hitchens’s legacy has been unfairly tarnished by the far left, who view him as a defector owing to his support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Johnson asserts that Hitchens was a lifelong champion of free inquiry, humanism, and true universal liberal values from which modern liberalism could stand to learn a lot. Matt Johnson is a writer for Haaretz, Quillette, The Bulwark, Areo, and numerous other publications. And it is my pleasure to welcome Matt Johnson here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment. Matt Johnson, thanks so much for joining us.
Matt Johnson: Thank you so much for having me, Jeff.
Jeff: A delight to have you here. First of all, for our listeners who may not fully understand, talk a little bit about who Christopher Hitchens was.
Matt: Hitchens was an Anglo-American journalist and an author who moved to the United States in the early 1980s. He was best known at that time for being an acerbic critic of US foreign policy and politics and culture. He was a socialist for much of his adult life, but on September 11th, he saw the tragedies in New York and Washington and decided that he could find his way into the corner of the US government in supporting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And that’s why so many of his former allies regarded him as a defector and a neocon and a warmonger, but what I argue in the book is that those positions weren’t all that surprising if you look at Hitchens’s overall career trajectory, from his support for the interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s to his consistent anti-totalitarianism and anti-authoritarianism throughout his career. So the basic theme of the book is that Hitchens was a true liberal and that the left would do well to rediscover his legacy today.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the fact that there was this indication, long before September 11th, of things like Bosnia, where he was so supportive of action, and he even was supportive of Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands.
Matt: Yes, exactly. So his friend, Ian McEwan, actually made the connection between his position on the Falklands and his ultimate position on Iraq and said that that was just his anti-totalitarianism through and through. He made the argument that if Thatcher opposed the absorption of the Falklands by the junta in Argentina, then Galtieri would fall in short order and the principle of sovereignty would be upheld.
And he was exactly right about that. It’s actually funny. There’s an author named Richard Seymour, who wrote a book called Unhitched about how Hitchens had these buried imperial and conservative tendencies throughout his life. He argues that his support for the Falklands War was evidence of those tendencies, but what’s so funny is that Seymour gives us a few pages about how Hitchens was right at every stage when it came to that conflict.
It did lead to the fall of the military junta in Argentina and hastened the transition to democracy. So, yes, he was on board with that sort of interventionism very early on. And then in the Balkans, he was probably one of the most visible and most articulate defenders of the idea that NATO should get involved to prevent ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and ultimately get involved in Kosovo as well. These tendencies were very clear.
If you read some of the work he did, particularly, I believe it was 1993 or ’94 in Boston Review, about how the left shouldn’t take its anti-imperialism too far, the left shouldn’t regard what was happening in Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans as the example of American and NATO power projection. It was actually a humanitarian conflict. I think that realization really did change his trajectory.
Jeff: And, of course, all of this begs the question of what he might think about the situation in Ukraine today.
Matt: Yes, you can never speak for the dead, but Hitchens was very clear about what he regarded as Russian chauvinism and imperialism and aggression. He was clear about what he thought about Putin’s war in Georgia, about his efforts to meddle in Ukrainian democracy. And this was long before the invasion and annexation of Crimea, so I think I can say with a fair amount of certainty that Hitchens would be behind the decision to arm the Ukrainians and help them resist this invasion.
And many on the left haven’t passed that test. I mentioned in the book that the Democratic Socialists of America, for example, upon witnessing the invasion of Ukraine, immediately blamed NATO and said, “We need to disband this alliance, which set the stage for this war.” So that’s a pretty good example of how some elements on the left really need to go back and maybe read a bit of Hitchens.
Jeff: And yet Hitchens, in spite of finding this through-line that ties all of this together, wasn’t always consistent in his political views — there was an evolving set of views that Hitchens had.
Matt: Yes, that’s exactly right and it’s important to emphasize that. You can’t reconcile his staunch opposition to the Gulf War with his support for the Iraq War, for example. At the time, he regarded the Gulf War as an imperial power play and a classic example of the United States pursuing the realpolitik that it had always pursued in the Middle East. And he later had to admit that he was wrong about that because his core reasons for the invasion of Iraq were humanitarian.
He constantly talked about the genocide against the Kurds, Saddam Hussein’s aggression against his neighbors, and just the horrific repression of the Iraqi people, but those arguments would’ve been all the stronger in the early ’90s during the Gulf War because the Anfal genocide in Iraq had just occurred and Saddam had just waged a pointless eight-year attrition war with Iran. So, yes, he definitely did evolve over time.
Jeff: And talk a little bit about his evolution in terms of his domestic views and how he saw liberalism and what he saw happening to liberalism and the liberal experiment in America and in Western Europe.
Matt: Yes, the word “liberalism” is an interesting one when you look at the arc of Hitchens’s career. He originally had a lot of contempt for it. He viewed it as this insipid and spineless form of politics, which is why he always declared that he was a socialist. He actually said that Brian Lamb, whenever he would go on his show on C-SPAN, would ask, “Are you still a socialist?”
He may have called himself a socialist for a little longer than he otherwise would have just to not give Brian Lamb the satisfaction of finally saying, “No, I’m no longer a socialist,” but I think he was coming around to the concept of liberalism as an affirmation. This is one of the core themes of the book and it’s why it’s in the subtitle of the book. He regarded it as an end in itself by the end of his career.
He was more focused on the threats to liberal democracy and liberal values that were permeating the culture than on a specific ideology like socialism. And, really, by the turn of the century, he was already moving beyond socialism and toward a more affirmative liberal position. It is an interesting transition for him. And I actually mentioned the difference between his attitude toward Bill Clinton, which was as hostile as it could possibly be in the 1990s, and his support for Tony Blair.
Fairly early on, he was a staunch supporter of Blair for sticking with the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he also believed that Blair was upholding liberal principles when he urged intervention in Kosovo and got Britain involved in Sierra Leone. I think he regarded Blair as a classic liberal type. But if you would’ve told the Hitchens of the early 1980s that this guy who is now seen as just a paragon of the neoliberal establishment would eventually be this politician he really admired, I think he would’ve been shocked.
Jeff: And why his dislike — and that’s probably putting it too mildly — towards Bill Clinton?
Matt: Yes, certainly. He said early on that he saw or he thought there was something completely hollow at the center of Clinton. I think that’s something he said in an interview right after Clinton was elected. He thought Clinton was a manager and an operator and, as he put it in the subtitle of his book, No One Left to Lie to, a triangulator. He thought he had no ethical or political core.
And that really was the nature of triangulation, which was Clinton’s electoral and political strategy: just to take the best ideas from the other side and fuse them with your own ideas and get as many people who were close to your position on the right as possible. And I think that’s why Clinton was known for welfare reform, which was seen as a giveaway to the right wing. And that’s something Hitchens really despised at the time.
And then there were specific episodes that Hitchens was really horrified by — Clinton’s decision to go back to Arkansas and oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector really horrified Hitchens. He said that Ricky Ray Rector was essentially this lobotomized individual who didn’t even know what was happening to him. And then Clinton’s decision to rocket the Al-Shefa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Hitchens thought that was a distraction from the Monica Lewinsky hearings, but I’m not going to speculate about that.
I think that’s probably ungenerous, but that’s what he thought, and he regarded that as just a really brazen and horrifying war crime. So, yes, there were these specific instances that he didn’t like, but I think that the core reason he didn’t like Clinton was the fact that he represented the managerial technocratic form of politics, which he regarded as bloodless and uninteresting in the ’90s.
Jeff: But the other side of that, and this is one of the things I think is so interesting about it, is that Clinton was probably closer to being a globalist or an internationalist than any other president, closer to what Hitchens’ views were about that.
Matt: Yes, in some ways, I think he could probably make that argument. Clinton was very slow to get involved in Bosnia. He talked a big game on the campaign about how he was going to differentiate himself from George H.W. Bush and really get in there. And he didn’t even want to lift or implement the lifted strike policy, which basically meant lifting the arms embargo on Bosnia, and then attacking any forces that would prevent arms deliveries from making it into the country.
So I think Hitchens saw that and that really upset him, but it is true that Clinton ended up coming around to the war, and he sent Richard Holbrooke to negotiate the Dayton Accords. And I do think he was trying, along with Blair, to construct something like a post-Cold War international order. NATO was in the process of expanding. This is when the EU was founded. The modern EU was founded in 1993. This was a period of remarkable international integration. And I don’t think Clinton was, by any means, opposed to any of that.
I don’t think Hitchens ever would’ve come around to Clinton. It just seems completely inconceivable, but Hitchens was extremely critical of Francis Fukuyama and the whole End of History thesis. And in the book, I mentioned the fact that I find it interesting that he was so hostile to this thesis because it’s informed by Hegelianism — which, of course, Marxism is also informed by — and the sense of historical mechanics and progress, which Hitchens always had some affinity for.
So I don’t think he would’ve become a Fukuyamian either. He was very critical of Fukuyama, but I think he misunderstood that thesis. And, yes, I think just the international order as it exists now and as it was crafted in the ’90s was something Hitchens reluctantly came around to. So what he would’ve said about its evolution over the past 15 years is anyone’s guess, but I think he was becoming more sympathetic.
Jeff: He was in favor of globalization, but not necessarily in the way we think about it all the time. It wasn’t just economic globalization. It was more political in terms of the structure that he saw.
Matt: Yes, exactly. He actually made that connection explicit several times. In Letters to a Young Contrarian, for example, he said, “If we’re going to have the globalization of production and economic development, then we should also have the globalization of human rights and something resembling international justice.” So he thought that was the next radical stage and I really have a lot of sympathy with that argument.
To me, the utter hostility toward institutions like NATO on the left, it’s not baffling. It’s understandable. If you’re in the opposition or you regard yourself as in the opposition, it’s difficult to be sympathetic toward a massive military alliance. [chuckles] But at the same time, I just think that if you do believe in internationalism, we have these institutions that work pretty well. The EU is one and NATO was another.
And I think both of those institutions are much more functional and much more successful than the United Nations, but I think a lot of people on the left tend to have more sympathy for the UN than for NATO, which they regard as this military colossus. And look at what Jeremy Corbyn had to say about NATO. You can only imagine if he had been prime minister when the invasion of Ukraine happened. We’d be living in a different world.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the Orwellian influence on Hitchens.
Matt: It was very substantial. One interesting thing about Orwell is the fact that he had what Hitchens regarded as these conservative tendencies. He was such a radical and he was a radical until the day he died and a socialist until the day he died. But at the same time, he appreciated the power of patriotism and national loyalty. He was a traditionalist. In many senses, I think he was definitely republican, and didn’t have much respect for the monarchy.
But he was amazed at the ability of the British people to come together in times of adversity, as he admitted later on. He originally thought that World War II would lead to a socialist revolution. And he was just shocked that people were so capable of maintaining the current order and rallying around that order during the war. And I think that clear-eyed understanding of how people actually are in the world was something that Hitchens took away from Orwell and really valued in Orwell.
Hitchens said that he had what he regarded as a similar upbringing to Orwell’s. And so when the time came to start sculpting his own views and his own approach to radicalism, I think it was Orwell’s really fundamental principles, his hatred for totalitarianism in the Soviet Union at a time when a lot of people on the left were apologists for it. And his absolute commitment to free speech, and all these other components of Orwell’s career, were the ones that really carried over for Hitchens.
And he provided a radical template that Hitchens followed in many ways, and he was always careful to say that despite the fact that some people would occasionally compare him to Orwell, it was a ludicrous comparison. [chuckles] What else can he say? If somebody compares you to George Orwell, you don’t say, “Well, yes, of course.” The comparisons or the similarities are obvious. It would make you sound like a bit of a lunatic, but I do think he was consciously sculpting his approach to politics on Orwell.
Jeff: And he really was a free-speech absolutist.
Matt: Yes, he was. I’ve had a lot of cause to think about that lately because I think, in some ways, just saying free speech all the time and for everyone is a limited argument these days. We live in an era of algorithmically boosted speech. And I have to wonder what Hitchens would say about Alex Jones abusing the families of murdered children at Sandy Hook. What would he say about Twitter’s decision to ban that guy?
I can’t really speculate about that because Hitchens was much more focused on self-censorship and the forms of censorship that are more familiar to us, top-down censorship. He was a First Amendment absolutist through and through. One of his formative moments was when the ACLU decided to defend the neo-Nazis who were marching through Skokie, Illinois, which was this bastion for Jewish refugees so it was just this horrendous display of intimidation.
But he just valued the principle so much that he thought the ACLU’s decision there was originally baffling to him, but then he could see the logic of it very clearly, that you have to defend speech for even the worst characters. And then Hitchens actually defended the right of David Irving, who’s a notorious Holocaust denier, to publish and speak. And he was horrified when Irving was arrested in Austria. But, yes, I don’t know how he would’ve engaged with the core debates that we’re having about free speech in the era of social media now.
I do think that his main insight— and it’s why I opened the chapter on free speech with Orwell’s originally-suppressed introduction to Animal Farm, in which he talks about how the most pernicious threat to free speech in Western democracies, where we don’t have much top-down control or totalitarian control of speech, is self-censorship. And that was something Hitchens was always very good on, and it was an extension of how he thought independently.
Jeff: The outgrowth of that, and the idea that made Hitchens so uncomfortable, was the notion of identity politics, which one can suppose he would’ve been more horrified by as time went on.
Matt: Yes, that’s another area where defining your terms is very important because Hitchens participated in a debate in November 2001 about reparations. And he was on the pro-reparation side, and he was always a strong supporter of the civil rights movement, of course. He marched against apartheid in South Africa. Focusing your political energies around issues that are identity adjacent, as in rights for Black Americans, was different to Hitchens from identity politics. To him, identity politics was the assertion of identity-based authority. “I am X, Y, or Z. Therefore, I should have a public platform to say X, Y, or Z.”
So that’s what he was really critical of, and he would say things like, “Anyone who begins a sentence with speaking as a…, as if that’s some badge of honor, and then starts talking should immediately be distrusted.” And so you look at the way identity politics is manifesting itself today. And I think Hitchens would’ve been really quite alarmed [at the reaction] when Bernie Sanders said, “I think we should judge political candidates on the basis of their ideas and principles rather than their age or their sex or their race.”
He really did get into trouble for saying that during the primary and the 2020 election. And so I just think Hitchens would’ve seen that sort of thing and said, “Well, that would’ve been a radical and progressive principle in the time of the civil rights movement.” It’s this sort of thing that Bayard Rustin thought. But nowadays, it’s regarded as this reactionary position. Anybody who says, “I’m colorblind,” or something like that, is automatically raked over the coals and I actually understand that. It’s impossible to be colorblind.
The legacies of slavery and Jim Crow are all around us. It’s very clear. But to say that I will choose a political candidate without reference to race or gender seems, to me, the progressive position, the liberal position. To say, “I’m only going to vote for a Black woman or I’m only going to vote for a gay man in this election — it just seems like the antithesis of liberalism. I think Hitchens saw that early on.
Jeff: Talk about his attitudes toward political change, because he did seem to sour on the idea that, I guess, for lack of a better phrase, the grassroots politics, the bottom-up politics wasn’t really effective anymore.
Matt: Well, yes, and that was the criticism that he always received from the left — that he was supporting in Iraq a revolution from above, which is the sort of thing that many on the left would always have been suspicious of in the ’60s and ’70s. And I do just think that what Hitchens came around to was the fact that there are these international realities. There are these political realities that you cannot get away from.
Instead of just denouncing NATO as an imperial colossus and saying, “Let’s build this whole thing from the ground up again,” you have to work within that institution and say, “Okay, NATO exists. It’s not going anywhere. There’s a genocide happening in Bosnia. What can I do to prevent that genocide from happening?” Well, I can lobby NATO. I can lobby the US government to get involved.
So that was the form instead of just trying to wash your hands of the whole thing and saying, “Let’s just create a perfect socialist utopia where we don’t need a NATO.”
Well, that world’s not coming around anytime soon. And I think Hitchens, just his suspicion of that sort of radicalism — at one point in his memoir, he says that sort of view, that human beings can be remade from the ground up, has built and populated many prisons around the world. And it often ends up burning human beings as the waste products of these failed ideological experiments. I think he just had a healthy suspicion of anyone who was too utopian.
And I do think that the idea that we’re just going to overthrow the system — or anarchist syndicalism, to use Noam Chomsky’s preferred ideology, is eventually going to provide bottom-up democratic control of major institutions — that’s not going to happen. That’s not the way the world works. And Hitchens had a lot of admiration for the founding principles of the United States. And he regards the country as a [unintelligible] country and an essentially liberal country, even though it’s deeply, deeply flawed.
So he just thought, “Yes, work within the system,” and this is something that I say in the book. The people who constantly say the United States is this imperial colossus and it’s inherently racist and inherently imperialistic, what is the political call to action there? And this is a point Hitchens often made, especially in the last decade of his life. If you really wake up in the morning and you think, “Okay, the US government is this sinister imperial entity,” what are you going to do? It completely renders you immobilized.
It’s like a form of radicalism that doesn’t require you to do anything because everything is so sinister. Everything is run by these bureaucrats in Brussels and by these monsters in Washington, DC, and then you can just find your way into some quiet corner and pump out radical polemics all the time. Well, Hitchens wanted to get in there. He actually wanted to change the world, so I think that informed the way he approached politics in the last 20 years of his life.
Jeff: And the way he approached his attitude towards religion, and organized religion in particular.
Matt: Yes, some readers might regard that as a bit of an omission in the book because I just don’t talk that much about his religious views, primarily because I think he just said everything himself as well as it could be said. I don’t think I need to relitigate his arguments in God Is Not Great. If you want to know what Hitchens thought about religion, read God Is Not Great. Watch one of the many, many debates that are out there on YouTube. I did mention religion several times, but in a political sense. Hitchens regarded religion as this tremendous force multiplier.
If you look at the Israel-Palestine conflict, some of us think it’s self-evident that very strong religious claims on either side are making the situation more intractable. And Hitchens always made that argument. Religion often creates partitions in the world. The separation of India and Pakistan was a creation of British imperialism, but at the same time, what has driven the wedge even deeper is religious division. So I do think that it intersects with many of my other arguments about Hitchens and his relevance. But, yes, if you want to know what Hitchens thinks about God, I’d read Hitchens.
Jeff: One of the things that’s so interesting about it is not that he wasn’t clear, as you say about his attitude about religion, but that, in some ways, it overshadowed some of his other work later in life.
Matt: Yes, it did. I think there were a lot of people who now know Hitchens only as that new–
Matt: And even the people who are familiar with Hitchens’s politics just look at the very familiar and, in my opinion, tedious narrative of radical-to-neocon. And I think that’s a really silly oversimplification. And his views on religion were such a major part of his life and his output and his last 10 years. So I think it’s understandable that that’s where a lot of people discover him, but I really do think his relevance today is much more bound up with his positions on universalism and the idea of global governance and the idea of interventionism, which has just become so much more relevant after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
And then just everything else that we’ve talked about: his commitment to free speech, and even the fact that he urged people always to say what they actually think, to do justice and let the skies fall. In an era of substackification of our intellectual lives and of social media mobbing, I don’t want to get too boomerish on you; but “safe spaces” on university campuses and this crippling fear of speech that people don’t like, I just think Hitchens’s example is valuable across the board. And, yes, I think the stuff that deserves a resurrection is really his political work after the Cold War.
Jeff: Also, whether or not enlightenment principles still have any value today.
Matt: Yes, Steven Pinker wrote this book called Enlightenment Now a few years ago, which made the case that the Enlightenment is under attack all the time. And if you look at a figure like Donald Trump, come on! This is somebody who disrespected and rejected the very rudiments of our democratic system. And then you look at people I mentioned in the book, like Robin DiAngelo and her views on race, and the fact that racial division is this permanent characteristic of being a human being and it will be with us until the end of time.
If we ever colonize Mars with SpaceX logos stamped on our little tents out there on the red landscape, she thinks that we’ll be arguing about race. And she thinks that our identities will still be these inescapable anchors that drag us into tribalism. And I think any humanist like Hitchens and any radical like Hitchens, who had respect for human potential and for real liberal values, would regard this as just a really depressing and bleak view of what human beings are capable of.
Their politics isn’t anchored to their identity. A lot of people actually have fundamentally progressive views about how the species can become more integrated, less tribal. So, yes, I just think it’s depressing that we have this cramped view. And to tie back into your comment about the Enlightenment, there was a review written of the book maybe a couple of weeks ago that pointed out that the Enlightenment was a very diffuse phenomenon. And it spans hundreds of years and it produced many ideas.
You can certainly make the case that Marxism is an Enlightenment, and there are a lot of philosophies that spun out from the Enlightenment, but what I argue in the book is the simple fact that there were certain themes of the Enlightenment. There were certain syntheses and one of them would be secularism. One of them would be humanism, individual rights.
These are things that we should really defend and rediscover today because they have laid the foundation of a system that has worked remarkably well. American democracy has been with us for hundreds of years and it’s still pretty impressive how stable the system is, despite Donald Trump’s best efforts to undermine it. So, yes, those would be a few of the arguments that Enlightenment principles are still relevant today.
Jeff: Matt Johnson, his recent book is How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment. Matt, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Matt: Thank you so much for having me, Jeff. It was a lot of fun.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.