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Two Books By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is one of my favorite writers. He is very eloquent and an independent thinker. He aligns himself with the left and has pretty good leftist credentials (such as having written for The Nation for many years). On the other hand, he has taken positions that most on the left find heretical. He has gone after such heroes of the left as Bill Clinton (in the 90's, when the Clintons still enjoyed an immunity from leftist criticism) and Michael Moore.

It's no surprise that such an independent and eclectic political thinker would write admiring books about two earlier writers that by most definitions would be considered liberal, but openly disagreed with their own side when their principles demanded it. I refer to George Orwell and Thomas Paine. I recently finished reading Hitchens' Thomas Paine's Rights Of Man (his contribution to the Books That Changed The World series) and Why Orwell Matters.

Much of the Paine book deals with Paine's quarrel with Edmund BurkeRights Of Man was written largely as a response to Burke's Reflections On The Revolution in France. Although Burke and Paine had agreed on the merits of the American Revolution, they parted company on the French. The differences are subtle. While Burke did not believe in the divine right of kings and supported the right of people to throw off oppressive governments, he put a lot of stock in hereditary institutions and tradition.

Paine rejected this. He believed that Burke romanticized monarchy and the ruling classes, and Hitchens agrees. A long admiring passage from Burke about Marie Antoinette is included, and is contrasted with Paine's elegant rebuttal 'He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird'

Paine discovered firsthand the downside of revolution when he went to France to help them draft their new constitution. He made enemies opposing the Jacobin's decision to execute Louis XVI without any due process. He was imprisoned briefly and nearly went to the guillotine.
Hitchens writes of Paine's experience "his life could be seen as a prefiguration of what would happen to idealists and revolutionaries in the following century".

Hitchens was probably thinking about Orwell when he wrote those words. Like Paine, Orwell was a defender of liberty and a critic of the existing order. Also like Paine, he was too independent a thinker to be an unquestioning true believer in any revolutionary movement.
Orwell contended with what Hitchens names "the three great subjects of the twentieth century...imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism."

His opposition to all these things can be found in his writings. It's fairly common knowledge that 1984 is chiefly about Stalinism, but I learned from Why Orwell Matters that much of what Winston Smith does in the Ministry Of Truth is based on things Orwell had to do while he was working for the BBC.

Orwell's opposition to Stalinism was solidified when he fought in the Spanish Civil War with the POUM, a Trotskyist faction of the republican side. This alliance made him a target of the Stalinists, his supposed allies. According to Hitchens, "had he and his wife not managed to escape from Spain with the police at their heels they might well have been placed in the dock as exhibits for ..[a] show trial." In Orwell's Homage To Catalonia, Hitchens writes "Orwell told the truth...about the deliberate subversion of the Spanish Republic by the agents of Stalin, and about the especially ruthless way in which they tried to destroy the independent Catalonia left."

I was struck by the similarities between Orwell's experiences in Spain and Thomas Paine's earlier experience in France. To a lesser extent, I find them both similar to Hitchens own role in the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

Orwell's refusal to "close ranks" with Stalinists made him many enemies on the left and Hitchens lists and rebuts many leftist criticisms of Orwell in a chapter called "Orwell And The Left". There is also a chapter called "Orwell And The Right" in which Hitchens lambastes conservatives who use Orwell's anti-communism as a pretext to claim him as one of their own. He includes an example of a Life magazine article that compares the rulers of 1984 with the FDR administration. On this, Hitchens makes the funniest remark in the book about "this image- of Eleanor Roosevelt's sensible shoes crashing down on a human face ,forever".

The closing words of Why Orwell Matters very succinctly answer the question posed by the title, and also describe the common them running through this and the Paine book : "politics are relatively important, but principals are enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them. "


The beauty of Christopher Hitchens is that no matter who you are or what your beliefs, he WILL say something that you disagree with.
Do you ever read fiction, my overly intelligent friend?
I occasionally read fiction. I like Michael Chabon, PG Wodehouse, and Vladmir Nabokov. I've actually read more books of fiction this year than usual. One that I'd highly recommend is Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr, a Sherlock Holmes novel, was also good.