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Christopher Hitchens and his critics

Obituaries that openly exult in the death of their subject remain something of a rarity. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, and all that.

That hasn’t stopped all the wrong guys from cheering the passing of Christopher Hitchens. The Hitch was, according to a prominent contributor to Britain’s widely-read socialist blog, a ‘grubby apologist for empire’ who exemplified the ‘moral depravity’ of liberalism.

Elsewhere, a former backbench MP who knows a thing or two about moral depravity himself blasted the late essayist as a slug, a toff and an apostate in the service of the devils. Perhaps George Galloway can spell out what he regards as the proper penalty for apostasy?

The froideur of the Morning Star was palpable, with a three paragraph acknowledgement of the story relegated to the number two slot in the NIBs column, behind the triumphant success of Alassane Ouattara in the Ivorian elections.

Personally I had rather more time for the man and his work than his critics did, and was among the many that raised a glass of whisky to his memory last Friday evening. There is no doubt that he was a journalist of uncommon genius.

I guess my intellectual formation automatically predisposed me to like what he did. Hitchens’ writing style drew heavily on Trotsky and Orwell, two of my own literary influences. Reading so many of his books hopefully had a positive impact on my output.

Moreover, his penchant for beating up on debating partners – if ‘partners’ is quite the right word here – was something he almost certainly picked up from his formative years on the far left.

As an ex-Trot myself, I can appreciate how difficult it was for him abandon that intellectual framework as it became more and more manifestly out of kilter with reality.

Perhaps the number one tip I picked up from the Hitch was his contention that, to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. Precisely because I accept that logic, I attempt to read well beyond my personal ideological comfort zone.

But where the critiques advanced by Wright, Galloway and the Morning Star do hit home is the inescapable fact that the last decade did see Hitchens unmistakably gravitate towards the political right.

Starting from the entirely correct baseline of opposition to the brutalities of Saddam, flawed logic led him to exaggerated polemical backing for the invasion of Iraq.  From there, it was a short step to electoral support for George W Bush, and semi-jocular avowal of neoconservatism.

In short, much like many from among that layer of 1930s New York leftist intellectuals he obviously admired, one of the brightest young revolutionary socialist writers of his generation ended up as a middle-aged Republican. That he gloriously trashed a few reactionaries along the way does not detract from the indignity of that trajectory.

In death, Christopher Hitchens merits an objective political assessment as much as he deserves to be toasted with double Johnnie Walker Blacks. It is, to use the kind of cliché he would presumably have avoided, what he would have wanted.

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