In Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, a British gossip writer used his English accent to cadge meals and free drinks off Americans who were spell-bound by anything British.
It has long been believed that Wolfe based this character on writer and professional atheist Christopher Hitchens. If so, (Hitchens, who loathed Wolfe, never thought so), there was no comparison. For Hitchens was amazingly productive—he wrote a column two weeks before his death from esophageal cancer—and never relied on his purring accent alone to impress audiences (women were another matter).
Instead, like Oscar Wilde, Hitchens was a spellbinding talker, as witty and quotable in person as he was on paper. What is even more impressive about this was that Hitchens, in the interview format, often answered off the top of his head rather than regurgitating previous answers in interviews. Unlike his friend-turned-nemesis Gore Vidal, who refused to adjust his view of the United States as run by the military-industrial complex no matter the challenging event, Hitchens was rarely predictable. Even during his Trotskyite phase, there were twists and turns and even outright criticism of Trotsky.
That said, Hitchens held to certain bedrock beliefs , documented in a new book Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. The title is something of a misnomer—it’s actually a collection of interviews from the 1980s to his death in 2011.
Those beliefs are often revealed to be of a conservative, even of a socially conservative, nature. This is rather ironic considering that when he died he was perhaps the world’s best known atheist intellectual. Taking note of Hitchens’ conservative principles also invalidates the accusations from his former comrades that his support of the War on Terror was attributable to him being “bought-off” by the Right.
Even in his most committed period of Trotskyism, however, Hitchens was as uncompromising as President Reagan on the totalitarian nature of Soviet Communism. In one interview in this collection, he echoed Orwell in saying that he never followed the traditionalist journey of moving from Stalinism to conservatism as he was “inoculated” against it. This came courtesy of him reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon “before I read The Communist Manifesto.”
He took this view with him, when at the height of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s popularity with the New Left in 1968 he astutely detected the totalitarian nature of the regime. Describing his disagreements with his fellow “socialists” who accompanied him on a trip to Cuba as a “huge fight,” he blasted Castro for the dictator’s “one-party state” and “the maltreatment of dissenters—social and civic ones.”
In the same period, he dissented from the anti-war Left in other ways. Even though he detested Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and Vietnam, he praised America, which his comrades blasted as a “fascist regime,” by declaring the United States truly was a “land of opportunity, of democracy, and personal liberty.” He held to this view till his dying day, praising the American Revolution as more valuable than the French and Bolshevik ones.
Still a Marxist, albeit, in light of 1989, a very critical one, he also praised the capitalist nature of the American economy, calling it the only “revolutionary” force in existence as carried out by the George W. Bush administration. But his most surprising and, given his fervent even feverish atheism, ironic stance concerned abortion, whose defense was required among his fellow leftists. Hitchens had kind words for the verboten pro-life movement: “It’s something that has moral and scientific realities. It’s become very evident indeed that this is not just a growth upon the mother.”
Other examples should have been included in The Last Interview showing that Hitchens was more in sync with libertarian principles than any lingering Trotskyism. He supported the Second Amendment as a barrier against a reliance on the military-industrial complex to provide protection for, and thus control, the people. He even praised his hated Nixon administration for ending the draft.
Equally lamentable is the absence of Hitchens eventually jettisoning Trotskyite inclinations, and indeed any form of what he attacked as “teleological socialism.” He concluded that this ideology led directly to the gulag and show trials.
Early on, Hitchens betrayed a liking for neoconservatives, once calling them a “rigorous” intellectual movement. A hater of Reagan, he nevertheless appreciated late in life how the president had abandoned the mutually destructive policies of previous administrations for the non-lethal policy of engaging the Soviets in economic policy, which he grudgingly admitted caused the Soviet implosion of 1989.
Almost alone among his comrades at The Nation, Hitchens was less a rigid dialectical thinker than a true intellectual, exemplifying F.Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of an intellectual who could hold two contradictory thoughts in one’s head and still be able to function. These interviews, stretching back 30 years, show that no matter how he defined himself politically, Hitchens never stopped being a true intellectual.