I apologise for the length of my article. As Richard Seymour’s blog posts aggressively whine about the generality of many of the reviews of his book (which is all it is worth) I felt inclined to do him the small service of at least engaging with some of his arguments. The trouble I suspect many critics have been having is the same as the one I encountered: that there’s simply too much wrong in this book to go through it all in a thousand words or so. Several instalments is not possible on this website at the moment so I thought it might be fairer to simply write a longer article than is the norm so I can at least take a little of the breath out of the moan that I haven’t engaged with anything Seymour says. However, it might be unfair to let out too great a stream when you’re in a pissing contest with someone who can muster only a feeble (if noisy) dribble, so I shall not keep you too long.
I will finish my preamble with a quote from Seymour’s blog: “every spittle-lathered review of Unhitched by one of the unhitched actually results in a gratifying improvement in the book’s sales figures. I’d like to see much, much more of this. But I’d also like a proper review by someone who has read the book.” (You’ll notice he eschews his overly-scholarly tone in favour of a roughly sarcastic, generally adolescent style of writing which he prefers for his blog). To save this article having whatever tiny impact on sales it might, please contact me directly for a free PDF of it if you would like to read it.
After reading Richard Seymour’s article in the Guardian promoting “Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens” I knew I didn’t want to buy the book. Hell, after reading the title I knew I didn’t want to buy the book: a niggardly and unnuanced reference to the girthier and weightier tome by Hitchens: “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” (in both physical and intellectual senses). It puts you in little doubt that the thesis of the book will be as generic and derivative as the title he so unsubtly cribs.
But then I have a problem. I must read the book in order to review it. But I don’t want to line Seymour’s pocket. Salvation came when a number of people offered me a PDF of it. Illegal, yes, but we’ll see if Mr Seymour is as keen to put on trial someone who is not only quick in mind but in body. And after all, property is theft. I am sure Mr Seymour, so opposed as he is to the pursuit of profit, will forgive me taking it gratis even if he is not willing to actively distribute it pro bono.
It is an irony that would not have been lost on Hitchens, that the preface is titled ‘Predictable as Hell’, for this book – published by Verso, an ‘imprint’ of New Left Books which claims to challenge ‘Imperialism and Capital’ (oh, those groundbreaking devils!) – has as its dedication the words, ‘To Marie, whose hatred is pure. With all my love.’ For love and hate were two sides of a coin that spun very rapidly on the desk of Mr Hitchens, a man who claimed his hatred ‘gave him the energy to get out of bed in the morning.’ Even before one has arrived at the first chapter, there is the doom-laden feeling that you are in the company of a man who likes to steal from his victim the sword by which he shall bleed.
Make it to Chapter One and you find the title ‘Christopher Hitchens in Theory and Practice’. Two proper nouns away from an infamous Hitchens polemic against the saint of Calcutta. It is rich for a man who criticises another for his supposed shift to neoconservatism to appropriate the style and language of his target when the Left has whinged for so long that the neoconservatives ungraciously purloined the rhetoric of radical socialism. Seymour goes further, citing Corey Robin: ‘From Burke onwards, conservatism has been adept at appropriating the ideas and modes of organisation of the Left, for essentially counterrevolutionary purposes: whether it is Joseph de Maistre’s appeal to “citoyens” or the neoconservative appropriation of internationalist rhetoric.’
It is fitting that an author so keen to imply Hitchens’ hypocrisy should implicate himself in such subtle hypocrisies. After all, are we not supposed to register the reference to the Kissinger trial as a bitchy comment on Hitchens’ own perceived warmongering? Gently, does it, Mr Seymour; if it’s too patently false to state, imply. A few pages on – ah, no. He’s just come right out with it.
Hitchens did not, as Seymour points out, simply adopt a posture of interventionism. Far from it. He rightly points out that Hitchens had long been in favour of it, though it falls to me to add the detail that it was only when he considered the motivation noble, with Hitchens opposing more interventions by far than he supported. A topic conspicuous by its rarity in this philippic is ‘internationalism’, as it was with this sentiment that Hitchens spoke so passionately in favour of humanitarian intervention: a sentiment rooted in his Old Left past and one that forced the older Hitchens to abandon the Left-wing movement as readily as it had abandoned its internationalist principles. Seymour hurries past this issue in a smokescreen of accusations of ‘imperialism’, and – for someone so fond of whining that people don’t read his book carefully enough – fails to engage himself with the old Left principle that the tyranny of despots should be opposed in favour of those who are oppressed, instead preferring to moan about Hitchens’ ‘largely sentimental attachment to the rhetoric of left-wing internationalism’.
Perhaps it is because I am on the Right that I am so keenly aware of the glaring fallacy of Seymour’s primary argument that Hitchens sold out to the neocons. While it may be customary for those on the far-Left to furiously wet themselves at the sight of any comrade defecting, Seymour is simply wasting a good pair of trousers. Hitchens was not, by any measure, a man of the Right. While the neocons may have a penchant for protectionism in trade and an inclination toward paternalism, their economics are predominantly laissez-faire. It is not only from this tenet that Hitchens profoundly dissented; the suspicion of positive discrimination, the disdain for radicalism, the appetite for gradualism, and the respect for tradition – so ubiquitous in Right wing circles – regularly squirmed under Hitchens’ nib. I may be an unashamed admirer of Hitchens, but while I feel an intellectual consanguinity with him in averring the paramountcy of free speech, the prime import of the individual and scorn for consensus, beyond these enlightenment fundaments we are not in political accord.
While Seymour is critical of the ‘clichéd’ and simplistic view of conservatism as ‘venerating tradition’, he redefines conservatism in line with Corey to a political stance ‘distinguished not by an appeal to tradition or the gradual emendation and improvement of the status quo but by violent adventurism, brutal modernism, and the desire to radically transform the status quo the better to preserve it.’ Which may conveniently fit the view he wishes to paint of Hitchens, but is far from satisfactory. Despite the original proponent’s obsession with conservatism, his definition is a very limited one, and no less simple or suspect than the broader etymological understanding of conservatism he dismisses.
The problem with this book is not – unlike its author’s sensationalist Guardian article – that it is a work of callow and ungallant schadenfreude. It may run through its subject with a stolen sword, but it doesn’t twist it as often as the titles might have us expect. It is almost a shame that Seymour attempts these few vainglorious attempts at satire, because in many places this is a book of forceful argument and historical conversance. Once he has shed the shadow of Hitchens, the author’s style is not without its merits. The problem with this book is that it gloats not over a slain Hitchens, but an erect if snicked one: less schadenfreude than wanton nastiness and and cynical exploitation of a man’s popularity; more often than not it feels like he is Hitching a ride on a famous name in order to draw attention to arguments that are bigger than Christopher Hitchens alone and are not, in fact, particularly relevant to the Hitch at all.
It must also be pointed out, lest anyone still is clinging to their belief that the Hitchens bubble deserves bursting over 130 pages: Hitchens himself did not ask for the fawning disciples he attracted. In Letters to a Young Contrarian his staunchest advice to the reader is to guard themselves against the desire to follow or emulate. It is why this book ultimately fails: it simply does not engage with a Hitchens the objective reader can recognise. Those of us who took something from his many works find ourselves slightly nauseated by the cult of Hitchens, and it is with great disappointment I watched Stephen Fry’s well-intentioned but obsequious encomium for Intelligence Squared. One feels it is this cult that Seymour seeks to disillusion, but those who are most enamoured with Hitchens’ legacy do not bristle to see Hitchens criticised. God knows there’s plenty to bash, and of such a prolific man of letters one can hardly expect otherwise.
But it is simply fruitless to devote any real time or energy to it, and by the end of the book we are still left wondering: why did Seymour write a whole book against one man, when a pamphlet on the rise of neoconservatism and bigotry would have been more fitting to the content? Hitchens took a near-sadistic pleasure in the fall of the huckster, the fraud and the hypocrite, and that is why he is so fondly remembered and so sadly missed. It is with a hollow imitation of this relish that Seymour has written his book, taking pleasure not – as he thinks – in the fall of an icon, but in small, rare blips in Hitchens’ feared logic. Worst, he uses those small failings to write an anti-conservative diatribe, lazily adumbrating a grossly inaccurate picture of Hitchens merely to tie it all together. In Seymour’s own words: ‘he is … an example of something broader.’ It may be considered necessary by those on the hard Left to trample upon a man’s reputation in order to make broader points. Those of us with more integrity might argue that if you wish to make a broad analysis you don’t need to use one dead man as your lens unless you realise it’s the only way to get people to read it. (Though credit where it is due: it does seem to have worked).
After all, there are far more fitting examples of ‘violent adventurism’ and ‘brutal modernism’: examples not to be found among the conservatives, or those the left would dub so, but among the National Socialists – a term understandably seldom used by those on the hard Left. And the same may be said of opponents of Islam: that there are real bigots who might have been better targets for Seymour’s relativist sob story. When you have to resort to saying this, you’re already proving my point: ‘There usually comes a time when a child begins to notice the inconsistencies and absurdities in the silly stories that grown-ups tell them in order to get them to behave. Christopher Hitchens was nine – a little late, if I may say so.’
For his many flaws, Hitchens did not share the corruption of his targets. It was with a mischievous grin that Hitchens promoted his own work with the much-used line ‘available in fine bookstores everywhere’. He made no secret of his vices, cracking ironic jokes about his own vanity with the quip ‘it’s my blue eyes’. He took a blatant pleasure in his paradoxical image of middle-bohemian hack crossed with champagne swigging English gentleman. Unlike many on the Left he was not ashamed of his public school accent or his Oxford education, yet he never paid respect to others on such superficial grounds – nor did he expect it in return.
When Seymour writes that Hitchens ‘became what he had despised – as Hazlitt put it, “a living and ignominious satire upon himself”’ he is crafting such a deft irony that it is almost a pity he lacks the self-awareness to appreciate it: the he is criticising a man for those ironies which Hitchens not only sought not to hide, but impishly played up to. This does not, as Seymour misses, constitute a fall, but a petty crow about those things which to the objective reader are charming and complex but hateful to those who bear the grudge of the snubbed socialist.
This is not the great polemic of the perspicacious moralist that one might find in abundance in the Hitchens canon. Though Seymour presents the inconsistencies within Hitchens’ arguments with aplomb, the trial of the man is a joke too clever for Seymour to understand, for it is the prosecutor who is guilty of the crimes of which the defendant is accused: myopia and dishonesty. And he is further guilty of the crimes the defendant spent his life bringing to light: literal-mindedness, pettiness, fanaticism and humbug. In places he makes good points, though he could have made them better in each case by using someone other than the Hitch as his example. Hitchens the warmonger? There are much better examples. Hitchens the chauvinist? There are much better examples. Hitchens the racist? I’m sorry, what? It ticks all the socialist boxes, but it doesn’t tick that big one advertised on the front of the book: Christopher Hitchens.
Seymour’s joyless crow brings plays upon the same flaws that Hitchens himself played upon, but without the wit, the intelligence or the irony, and illuminates with all the force of a searchlight on a midsummer’s day. Hitchens never pretended to be anything other than what he was: neither a man of the Right nor the Left, nor anything but a mortal man, but someone full-throatedly opposed to the partisan thinking with which Seymour’s exercise in socialist pornography is rife. The book is Seymour’s circle-jerk, only nobody else has turned up. From a lifetime of letters he has assembled a masturbatory portfolio of mistakes and contradictions that are titillating only to those whose whose fetish is the snap of the whip against that ripest of skins: the Leftie who defects to the Right. It stands to reason, then, that the favourable reviews for this book have come chiefly from the far-Left, while the mainstream press have written it off as little more than wank fodder for sad radicals.
If you want to read a criticism of Christopher Hitchens, read Christopher Hitchens, and leave Mr Seymour to his solitary vice. If you want to read the response to this squalid – if ostensibly scholarly – smear, go back and read some Hitchens: The Trial of Richard Seymour is there, lurking between the lines.
Robert Hainault is a columnist for Not So Reviews