Another Look at Christopher Hitchens? Why Ben Burgis, Why?

Ben Burgis has decided to publish a new book about Christopher Hitchens and the early signs are not good. His public statements seem to indicate he has the notion of actually interrogating Hitchens as a genuine intellectual.

He wasn’t, he was a constant plagiarist. His works on Kissinger lifted passages by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. His Clinton book plagiarized Sam Husseini. His New Atheism book plagiarized Chapman Cohen. His 2004 book review of Isaac Deutscher’s biographical trilogy on Trotsky, The Prophet, published by The Atlantic, lifts from George Steiner. His nasty takedown of Edward Said, published as the man laid on his deathbed, plagiarized Orientalism in order to clumsily repudiate it.

Plagiarism is a double crime. First you steal and profit off the labor of others, then you defraud your readers. If Burgis has bothered reading the outstanding polemic Unhitched: The Trials of Christopher Hitchens by Richard Seymour (Verso, 2012), he would have been aware of these issues and would perhaps come to his subject with a far more critical lens. It’s not that the plagiarism emerged simultaneous with the public allegiance to neoconservatism, it was there beforehand and probably is riddled throughout his writings as a nominal socialist.

I can envision a few different scenarios explain Christopher’s thought process. None of them merit a book-length analysis.

First, is it possible to define his ideology as primarily a libertarian contrarianism that has a certain appeal for many writers? In an increasingly-uncertain market for scribes and public intellectuals lacking institutional tenure, contrarianism increases commercial appeal and therefore paycheck. Remember, up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the British Communist Party had a viability that included intellectuals like Eric Hobsbawm. To be a Trotskyist in the New Left Review/Verso Books milieu was to promote a certain kind of libertarian contrarianism, complete with a polemic against the welfare state that can be easily merged into the one offered by neoconservatism.

Second, and perhaps this is an especially uncomfortable matter for Burgis as a member of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), is it possible to see Hitchens as one of the last Shachtmanites? After the death of the Socialist Party of America’s (SPA) stalwart leader Norman Thomas in 1968, the organization’s remainders were taken over by the disciples of Trotskyist Max Shachtman, who had moved from critical support for the Soviet Union to hardline anticommunism over the prior three decades. By the end of his life, Shachtman’s apostles were militant Cold Warriors, seeing “Soviet imperialism” as more dangerous than American napalm in Southeast Asia. (I imagine being described with verbiage akin to St. Paul might rile the evangelical New Atheists.) This rump party schismed in 1972-3 over Vietnam. The left faction exited to form the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, forerunner of the DSA. Meanwhile, the right Shachtmanites founded Social Democrats USA (SDUSA) and later joined the Reagan administration, with Jeane Kirkpatrick (not a formal member of SDUSA but a self-professed former member of the SPA youth wing, where Shachtman had built his base starting in the 1950s) being the most prominent and impactful member. By 2001, Shachtmanites, left and right, were an endangered species, confined to irrelevance and ambiguity by a political landscape that had rendered Global Northern social democrats like Tony Blair into kinder, gentler Reaganites. In reading the various apologias for the rampages in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq, it is possible to see a perverse, disgusting “Bunker Buster Bolshevism” underwriting Hitchens’ thought process, a kind of Permanent Revolution of the Liberal Democratic Imperium.

Or could the third, a synthesis of the two, probably be closest to the truth? Terry Eagleton, a member of the same Trot cell as Hitchens, once described him as a “champagne socialist,” and a heavy emphasis on the former modifier is necessary. Is the intellectual laziness and the mechanistic determinism of a Shachtmanite plagiarist to be laid at the feet of a lifelong substance use disorder that ultimately proved fatal to the scribe? The downward spiral of the bottle is something that I understand quite well. Unless arrested by a serious program of recovery that requires a painful amount of introspection, substance use disorder leads one to increasing irrationality, incoherence, opportunism, and general shittiness in order to sustain the habit. Why try being original when you are busy being buzzed? Everyone saw his alcoholism on full display in the 1990s, if not earlier, when his television appearances bore the telltale signs of the hangover, the morning swig, and the moody swagger one gains in the saloon. By the time he was touring the speaking circuit as a rebranded New Atheist, he was so steeped that it is possible to catch a whiff of the ethanol through the screen whilst watching the seemingly-infinite plethora of “Hitch-Slap” videos on YouTube.

The tragedy of Hitchens was this synthesis. The tragedy of his readers is to mistake his fraudulence for a genuine intellectual and ideological trajectory rather than the pathology of the gin mill. Those that applaud his book on President Clinton for memorializing the gruesome execution of Ricky Ray Rector are conveniently forgetting that, simultaneous with typing those words, Hitchens was actively collaborating with Ken Starr’s revanchist GOP and sending his “friend” Sidney Blumenthal up for alleged perjury! Those that applauded his Kissinger book seem oblivious to the fact that this was simultaneous with his cozying up with Donald Rumsfeld’s longtime anti-detente foreign policy faction! “Known in his student days as Hypocritchens for his habit of marching for the poor and dining with the rich, he was a public school renegade in a long English tradition of well-bred bohemians and upper-class dissenters,” writes Eagleton.

In 1917, Harvard alumnus John Reed journeyed to Petrograd, where he became an eyewitness reporter on the Bolshevik Revolution and authored Ten Days That Shook the World, probably the scoop of the young century. A veteran of the Debsian Socialist Party, which was in the midst of an extended period of state repression owing first to antiwar organizing and then the infamous Palmer Raids, Reed followed the Thesis on Feurbach and decided that the task was to change the world. The Socialists schismed over Russia into three organizations, expelling those that expressed solidarity with the Kremlin, which resulted in the founding of two (!) distinct Communist parties seeking the official blessing from the Communist International. This led Reed on his second set of adventures, this time serving as a partisan in the fractious early years of the Soviet era. The temperament and skillset necessary was in many ways opposed to “the Oscar Wildian dilettantism which had possessed undergraduate litterateurs for generations,” to quote Reed directly. Along with the usual challenges of organizing, Dr. Joshua Morris of Wayne State University has recently suggested that the factions were inflected by a strain of nativism and xenophobia, with Reed championing a cell of Reds that couldn’t stomach the idea of being led by immigrants like Italian Louis Fraina.

By contrast, Maurice Isserman writes “Committed as he was to proletarian revolution, Shachtman was no Eugene Debs or even James Cannon. He could never have led a strike or administered a union.” Shachtmanites were only successful at aligning with the powerful and tapping into their preexisting streams of resources rather than building their own centers of power.

This applied to Hitchens in spades. He had a talented tongue, a witty nib, and a brain of Swiss cheese, porous after years of saturation in the brine. Unlike several other of his extraordinary contemporaries in the writers stable at The Nation in the 1980s, like Alex Cockburn, Adolph Reed, Jr., Andrew Kopkind, Ken Silverstein, and Joann Wypijewski, he lacked journalistic chops and could only pretend to be a genuine intellectual. This is not the stuff of serious interrogation and postmortem, it is a parable warning against intellectual fraud and laziness. Anything else is cynical or stupid.


Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.